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Fighting the Human Tendency for a Golden Calf — The Jewish People Find Freedom

Eitan Cooper
| 09/03/2023

Schechter’s Eitan Cooper argues that the Jewish People are free only when they choose not have a mediator for reaching God:

Between Freedom and Slavery – the Tablets and the Golden Calf

Long before the Children of Israel received the Torah at Sinai, the Creation itself contained the clue to the subsequent rejection of idols and images.

Human beings were created in the image of God: tzelem elohim. In Hebrew, the word tzelem (image) is synonymous with pesel (statue) or any representation of God in the form of a human or animal. God already has an “image” on earth, which are the human beings that God created. Replacing a living image with an artificial one made of stone or wood is therefore a denial of the human mission to be God’s representative in the world.

And if an image of a human is forbidden, then God in the form of any other animal how much more so!

This brings us to the Golden Calf. How is it that a people who had witnessed God’s power bringing the plagues and parting the sea; that saw and heard the Voice speak to them at Sinai only a few weeks earlier, can demand that Aaron form a new God? Are they stupid? or are they really just stubborn   עם קשה עורף (a stiff-necked necked people)?

Many of the traditional commentators agree that the People were not demanding a new God, but rather a new leader to replace Moshe, who was lingering up on Mt. Sinai, and had seemingly forgotten them. They of course understood that the Calf made from their jewelry the day before was not the actual God who brought them out of Egypt.

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch thought that the mistake of the People was in thinking that it was Moshe who brought them out from Egypt, by magically manipulating God. They needed a new leader, a new judge, who could do what Moshe had done, and lead them across the desert. This is similar to the approach of Rambam in his description of idolatry: the first idolaters were the children of Adam and Eve who mistakenly thought that it was necessary to have a mediator between them and God.

History, including contemporary history, is full of examples of peoples who after experiencing the euphoria of release from the hands of tyranny, fall victim to a new tyrant, sometimes worse than the one they overthrew. Peoples often cannot maintain the most basic criterion for freedom: taking responsibility for themselves.

A free people needs no mediators.

The clue to this is found in the stone Tablets (לוחות הברית), which are “the work of God, and the writing is the writing of God, engraved on the Tablets”. The word for engraved (harut), is similar to the work for freedom (herut), and Midrash Rabbah played on this:

“What does ’Engraved on the Tablets’ mean? …Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Yirmayah and the sages all taught, ‘It’s not ‘Harut’ (engraved), it’s ‘Herut’ (freedom) freedom from exile’, ‘freedom from suffering’ and ‘freedom from death’.”

In the 8th Century B.C.E. the Prophet Amos came to the town of Bet El, North of Jerusalem, to a Temple that had been set up by Jeroboam, as an alternative to the Temple in Jerusalem. He put a Golden Calf there, instead of the Ark of the Covenant containing the tablets of the Law. Amos called for social justice. Amos wanted them to care for the widow, to bring about responsibility. He warned of impending destruction if they failed to do so.

In our times, we need to fight our human tendency to worship a Golden Calf. To seek mediators rather than to pursue our mission to be the representatives of the image of God on earth.

The uniqueness of Israel is in the message that was engraved on the Tablets that enabled us to overcome exile and troubles of all kind. We will continue to do so if only we govern ourselves responsibly in our land in accordance with the law, as people worthy of freedom.




Eitan Cooper is the Executive Vice President of The Schechter Institutes. Since coming to Schechter in 2000, he has served in various capacities, including TALI Outreach Coordinator and Vice President for Development. Mr. Cooper holds a BA from the University of Chicago and an MA from the Hebrew University. He is a graduate of the Mandel School for Educational Leadership and a licensed Israeli tour guide.

Eitan and Anita Cooper made Aliya from the United States in 1983, and are proud parents and grandparents to their growing Israeli family.

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