It was the gravest sin that the people could have committed.
Standing at the foot of Har Sinai, waiting for Moshe to return with the luchos, they gathered around Aharon and demanded עֲשֵׂה־לָנוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר יֵלְכוּ לְפָנֵינוּ – Make us gods that will go before us.
And, despite Aharon’s attempts to stall them, they fashioned the Egel Hazahav.
Can you imagine anything worse? To do such a thing, at such at time and at such a place? It’s like a rabbi going away for a month and coming back a day late to find people eating bacon sandwiches in his Shul!
And so we can understand why Hashem reacts angrily and tells Moshe לֶךְ־רֵד – Go down, for your people that you’ve brought up from the land of Egypt have acted corruptly. סָרוּ מַהֵר מִן־הַדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִם – They’ve quickly turned away from the path that I’ve commanded them; they’ve made themselves a molten calf! And they’ve bowed down before it, slaughtered sacrifices to it, and called it their god.
G-d is emphatic that He will wipe out the entire people and says to Moshe: וְעַתָּה הַנִּיחָה לִּי וְיִחַר־אַפִּי בָהֶם וַאֲכַלֵּם – Now leave Me alone, and My anger will be kindled against them so that I will annihilate them, וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אוֹתְךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל – and I will make you into a great nation.
But Moshe pleads on behalf of the people – knowing that the very survival of our nation depends on it – and so he employs every possible argument.
His chief defence was to say to Hashem, ‘Remember Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yisrael, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתָּ לָהֶם בָּךְ – to whom You swore Yourself and said: ‘I will multiply your seed like the stars of the heavens, and all this land which I said that I would give to your seed, they shall keep it as their possession forever.’’
What sort of case was Moshe presenting?
Rashi quotes the Midrash to explain. Moshe emphasised to Hashem that He had sworn an oath to our ancestors.אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתָּ לָהֶם בָּךְ – You swore Yourself: You didn’t swear to them by something finite – not by the heavens and not by the earth, not by the mountains and not by the hills, but by Your very Self You swore, for You exist and Your oath exists forever.
Moshe reminded Hashem, so to speak, of what He’d said to Avraham: ‘By Myself I have sworn, says G-d’ (Bereishit 22:16). To Yitzchak He’d said: ‘and I will establish the oath that I swore to Avraham, your father’ (ibid 26:3). To Yakov He’d said: ‘The land which I gave to Avraham and Yitzchak, I will give to you and your descendants after you’ (ibid 35:11).
The Brisker Rav explains this Midrash. Moshe’s point was that G-d destroying the entire Jewish nation would be in violation of His oath to our forefathers to multiply their offspring and grant them the Land of Israel as an inheritance.
Although the terrible sin of the Golden Calf, it could be argued, meant that the people had forfeited their rights – G-d’s hands were tied – He’d made a promise which couldn’t be broken.
How does Hashem respond?
G-d said, ‘You’ve said well’ וַיִּנָּחֶם ה’ עַל־הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לַעֲשׂוֹת לְעַמּוֹ – And G-d relented from the evil He had said He’d do to His people.
The decision goes in our favour. Moshe should’ve been a lawyer!
Despite how critical a condition the Jewish people were in at that moment, with their very survival in the balance, there’s one simple point that emerges from this whole episode: A promise is a promise.
If you make a promise you can’t break it, you have to keep it, even if you’re G-d and your people have committed a terrible sin, you still have to keep it.
Let’s consider the promises we make and whether we always keep them.
It’s well-known that we begin Yom Kippur – the holiest day of the year – with Kol Nidrei – to annul the vows we made and to atone for the broken promises.
It’s no shock that Moshe broke the luchos when he witnessed the people worshipping the Golden Calf and by so doing, breaking a promise to have no other gods but Hashem.
It’s no coincidence that Moshe returns with the second set of luchos on Yom Kippur as it is a symbol of Divine forgiveness and our second chance to keep our promises in the future.
The luchos and the Torah are our manifesto that contain G-d’s promises to us and our promises to Him.
We must never underestimate the importance of keeping those promises.