Ki Tissa

The Golden Calf in the light of Four Chasidic Discourses

Adapted by Rabbi Yossi Marcus

A Monumental Sin

Mankind was created pure. But Chavah’s (Eve) encounter with the snake in the Garden of Eden on the first day of creation, imparted a sense of spiritual obstruction to her and all her descendants. At the Giving of the Torah, this impurity was removed (Shabbos 146a). The world was filled with Divine light.

But not for long. The sin of the Golden Calf brought back the spirit of impurity—albeit not strongly as before (see Chida’s Nitzutei Oros on Zohar 3:14b).

In the words of the Zohar (1:52b; see also Zohar 1:126b:193b, et al.):

“Before Adam and Chavah sinned, they were able to hear a voice from Above [and withstand its intense revelation]. They were endowed with the higher wisdom and stood erect with heavenly radiance and knew no fear. When they sinned, they could not stand even before an earthly voice.

A similar thing happened later with the Israelites. When Israel stood before Mount Sinai, the impurity of the serpent was removed from them…they were able to attach themselves to the Tree of Life, and their thoughts were turned to higher things and not to lower. They were granted heavenly illuminations and knowledge that filled them with joy and gladness….

“But when they sinned, they were degraded from their high state and lost their illumination…they became exposed to the attacks of the evil serpent as before, and so brought death [back] into the world….they were unable to look upon the face of the mortal Moses.“

Similarly, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi writes in his Tanya (1:36) that at Sinai, the world experienced a taste of the future Messianic world, when the Divine light will be apparent in the physical world. At Sinai, a glimmer of this light was revealed:

“[At Sinai,] G-d revealed Himself in a manner [perceptible to] physical sight…there was no concealment of the Countenance at all…[the souls] were therefore entirely nullified, literally…

“But afterwards, the sin caused that both they and the world were coarsened until the End of Days when the dross of the body and the world will be purified and they will be able to receive the revelation of Divine light… ‘and all flesh will see’…”  

The sin of the golden calf is therefore called a “general” sin. It is the spiritual root and source for all sin and spiritual resistance. (Maamorim Melukat 1:387)


How was the Calf Created?

The Midrash (cited by Rashi Ex. 32:4) relates that the Golden Calf came into a being in a miraculous way. The “mixed multitude” (eirev rav)—the Egyptian “converts,” who Moshe allowed to come along with the Israelites in their exodus from Egypt (Ex. 12:38[1])—threw a metal plate with the words “arise ox” (alei shur) upon it into the gold that had been amassed. This metal plate had been used by Moshe to raise the bones of Yosef—who is called an ox (Gen. 33:17)—from the bottom of the Nile. The mixed multitude took this plate and used it to create the Golden Calf.

Accordingly, Arizal explains the verse (Isaiah 1:3), “The ox knew its master…but Israel did not know, My nation did not think.”

He explains (Shaar Hapesukim on the above verse) that the metal plate contained the Divine Name spelled yud-lamed-yud, which is the Name through which the “supernal ox” is sustained and guided. (This Name is the second Name of the Name that has 72 Names.)

[General note on Divine Names: The various names of G-d should not be understood in the sense of separate aspects of G-d, G-d forbid. G-d is one and indivisible. The various names describe G-d as He is manifest in a given attribute. See Shoresh Mitzvas Hateifillah, ch. 2.]

So “the ox knew its Master” means that the Golden Calf itself knew that its existence sprang from the sacred Name; but “Israel did not know”—they did not think about the calf’s origin, but rather said that it sprung up on its own and therefore made it an object of worship.

(The Name yud-lamed-yud appears as the first letters of the words “Israel did not know”—yisrael lo yada. The first letters of the words “my nation did not think” ami lo hisbonan, make up the word aleh, “arise.” I.e., they did not know and contemplate the fact that the calf arose (aleh) by the power of the Name yud-lamed-yud.) (Cited in Maamorim Melukat 3:235)


Divine Tricks

Rabbi Dovber of Lubavitch, the second Rebbe of Chabad, writes in his Toras Chaim (1:13a) that “at times, the evil of the evil inclination overpowers man and he sins [because] from Above they have incited the evil inclination upon him to commit this sin.”

This idea is based on a Midrash on the verse (Psalms 66:5): “…the pretexts He employs against man are awesome.”

This translation of the verse follows the Midrashic (Tanchuma, Vayeshev 4) statement that G-d “tricks” man. For example, says the Midrash, G-d holds Adam accountable for introducing death into the world because of his sin. But, in truth, the angel of death was created on the first day (Gen. 1:2: ‘“There was darkness on the face of the earth,”—this refers to the angel of death who darkens the faces of men.’)

[The Midrash compares this to a man who walks into his house holding a divorce contract behind his back. He asks his wife for a hot drink and when she gives it to him he says, “Here is your divorce contract—the drink you poured me is lukewarm.”]  

To explain: Man, essentially, has no connection to sin. The Zohar (3:13b, beg.) thus reads the verse, “When a soul sins,” as an exclamation of surprise—“a soul that sins?!” The whole concept of sin is introduced because G-d in His great kindness wants to bring man to an even greater level. He therefore “creates a pretext” and for a short time there is a descent—“for a short moment I abandoned you” (Isaiah 54:7)—so that an elevation can follow.

The spiritual descent that the sin of the Golden Calf brought about was part of the long list of descents and concealments in world and cosmic history. The first descent and concealment is known as the tzimtzum harishon, the first contraction of Divine light, which left a “void,” a place where a world of seeming separateness could be created. Other concealments include the “shattering of the vessels of Tohu”, and the diminishing of the moon. [The Midrash relates that originally the moon and sun were both of equal size and power. But the moon complained to G-d, saying that “two kings cannot wear one crown.” G-d agreed and told the moon to diminish itself. Kabbalistically, the diminishing of the moon is understood to mean a further concealment of the Divine.] In human history, the first descent was brought about by the sin of Adam.

But there is of course a purpose to all these descents. It is so that Divinity is experienced and revealed even in a state of lowliness: in a physical world, where the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil has been eaten and a Golden Calf has been worshipped. In addition, the Divine service that follows a descent and is fired thereby is of a much greater intensity than that of the perfectly righteous.

We see this idea of the “purpose” of sin in the case of the sin of the Calf. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 4b) states that “the only reason Israel made the calf was to provide a way out for penitents.” As Rashi (ad loc.) comments:

“The Israelites were strong and in control of their inclinations. Their inclinations should not have been able to overpower them. But it was a decree of the King in order to provide a way out for penitents. If the sinner will say,  “I cannot repent for I will not be accepted”—we say to him, “Go out and learn from the affair with the Calf in which [the Israelites] denied [G-d’s existence] yet their repentance was accepted.”

(From Sefer Hasichos 5752 2:429-31)



[Despite the above, the sin is considered a sin, since ultimately free-choice is never taken away. G-d may have pushed them to the edge, but it was they who took the last and critical step. Thus the Israelites were in need of forgiveness.]

The Tzemach Tzedek explains that Moshe knew that according to the natural channels (seder histalshelus), which begins with Chochmah, the Jews were not fit to be forgiven for such a grave sin. Only from Keter, which is beyond the natural order, can there be forgiveness even for the sin of the Golden Calf. This is because Keter is filled with pure mercy. Indeed the 13 attributes of mercy flow from Keter. It is a place of Divine indifference, of which it is said, “If you are righteous, what can you give Him?” And “If your sins are abundant, what can you do to Him?” (Job 35:7 and 6).

How was Moshe able to draw forth from Keter for the Jewish people? By invoking the fact that they are a stiff-necked nation. At first glance, this does not appear to be a virtue. One therefore wonders why Moshe would say, (Ex. 34:10) “forgive them for they are a stiff-necked nation.”

But what Moshe meant was this. The neck is the bridge between the head and the heart. Stiff-necked means that even when the heart does not sense what the brain knows, one forces the heart to act according to the brain, even against its nature. For this characteristic they merited to be dealt with on the level of Keter, which is beyond nature. (Derech Mitzvosecha 99a)

[Adapted and summarized by Rabbi Yosef Marcus]

[1] The “mixed multitude” were the Egyptian converts that accompanied the Jewish people on their exodus from Egypt. Since their motives for conversion were not pure (they were impressed by the victory of the Jews over the Egyptians rather than the merits of monotheism over idolatry), they were the cause of much of the suffering the Jews underwent in their desert trek. The first and most heinous of these instances was that of the golden calf.


Rabbi Yossi Marcus is director of Chabad outreach activities in S. Mateo, California. He is also the editor of the Q&A database at AskMoses.com and is one of the translators at Kehot Publication Society.


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