Moses goes up on the mount to meet with God, and he is gone so long that the people worry he has abandoned them. They ask Aaron for a way to make God approach the people, or for a new God to lead them. Aaron tells the people to gather their gold and he melts it into the golden calf.* The symbolism of the golden calf is rife with meanings for every age. In ours, we can see it as a condemntation of materialism; that we tend to wroship "gold" (money, etc.) in unhealthy ways. The golden calf might symbolize all sorts of false idols many of us have. A friend once told me that, in her view, the problem with our society is not that people don’ t believe in anything but rather that people will believe in anything. We replace deities with new age theories (don't even get me started on "the secret"), the newest digital gadgets, the latest fashions, whatever is trending on twitter, etc. This is not to say that we should abandon all of these things. I appreciate a nice pair of shoes as much as the next guy… just ask my husband. But we could all do with some reflection about how much we invest in material goods and exactly what we hope to get in return. Our spiritual and emotional needs cannot be met through these external items.
In the story, Moses leaves Aaron in charge. Aaron might have been a wonderful Priest, but he was not a terrific leader. When Moses descends the mountain, furious, he asks Aaron what happened. Aaron replies that he put the gold into a fire and “Out came this calf.” Commentators have tried to excuse Aaron by saying that we was perhaps stalling by collecting the gold items, knowing that Moses would return. But anyone who has spent time around children can see a very childish quality to Aaron’s response. He is basically telling Moses: “I didn’t do it.” Further, the text notes that the people, lacking strong leadership, were running amok. “Moses saw that the people were out of control since Aaron had let them get out of control.” So what we learn from this story is just as much about human leadership as it is about the power of the deity; people need strong leadership in order to feel secure. Without strong models to turn to, people start looking to that which can't truly provide what they're looking for.
God is angry at the people and suggests to Moses that he will forsake him. Moses, the better leader, negotiates with God. Moses reminds Yahweh about the promises he made to the ancestors. He tells him that if he were to destroy the people now, that the Egyptians would think the Exodus was simply an exercise in futility, and that the Israelite God was evil after all. Moses employs other examples of rhetoric to convince God to spare the people. This suggests a) that the God-character can be manipulated by human speech and b) that Moses, not God, is the true deliverer of the people. The people, even after having experienced the “miracle” of the Exodus, are still seeking strong leadership. Many of us are aware of the leaders and teachers we’ve had who shape us and make us who we are. Even though Moses is angry at the people (he smashes the tablets!), he fights for them.
Several times in this parasha, God refers to the Israelites as a “stiff-necked” people. What he means is that they are stubborn and will not bow to him. However, I see being “stiff-necked” as a positive attribute, though it is not meant that way in this context. The Maccabees refused to bow, and for this we call them heroes. Our stubbornness as a people has given us our grit, often allowing us to stay Jewish even when it would be much easier not to. We are “stiff-necked” in the sense that we are proud, and that we do not bow when we do not believe. That is a legacy with which Humanistic Jews can identify.
The JPS commentators cite an interesting historical possibility for the Golden Calf scene. After the temple destruction, the united monarchy falls (if it existed; archaeologists and historians cannot conclusively find Solomon’s temple) and the people split into the Northern kingdom of Israel and the Southern kingdom of Judah (there is archaeological evidence of a community in the north and in the south). There is evidence that Jeroboam of the Northern Kingdom created two golden calves. In embedding historical details in the (likely) fictional text of the Exodus, the Southern kingdom of Judah is playing politics with the Northern Kingdom of Israel. In much of the bible, written by the people living in the Southern community of Judah, there is an emphasis on denigrating the practices of the North. Because the bible makes it seem that the South was more righteous and powerful, archaeologists were surprised to find that the community in the North appeared much bigger, more affluent, and stable – a lesson that the bible does not always attempt to encode, but rather create, the historical record.