A Golden Half Calf – By Rabbi Allen S. Maller
Everyone was worried that something bad happened to Moses. He had gone up on Mount Sinai more than three weeks ago. He had not yet returned. Each day when Prophet Moses didn’t return more people worried and got more upset. Aaron and Miriam urged people not to worry. Moses would surely return in a few days.
But as the days passed and Moses didn’t return, many people became scared and afraid. They felt they had been left all alone in the desert. They felt abandoned by God. Their fears began to spread to the majority of the children of Israel.
There was an Egyptian magician named As-Samiri, who along with many other non-Jews had left Egypt with the Jewish people. He started telling people that they should make an image of a God to lead them, since no one knew what had happened to that old man Moses. At first very few people listened to As-Samiri. But after Moses had been gone for over four weeks, more and more people began to agree with him.
As-Samiri told people that in addition to the God of Abraham who no one could see, people need another God that they could see. “In Sumaria where my family came from, and in Egypt where we all lived, there are paintings and statues of many different Gods both big and small. When you see a picture or a statue of God then you can feel God is close to you” As-Samiri said.
When Miriam the Prophet, the older sister of Moses and Aaron, heard what the Egyptian magician was saying she objected strongly. “The Ten Commandments forbid the Jewish people to make any statues or paintings of God. The Ten Commandments forbid us to have any God other than the One God of the world who freed us from slavery in Egypt. Don’t even think about making an image of our God, or of any other God. There is no other God and no one can be associated with the One God.”
One day a large crowd of people gathered around Aaron and demanded that he either tell them when Moses would return, or make an image for them to revere. At first Prophet Aaron warned the Israelites that the delay in Moses’ return was only a test of their trust in God. But this did not reassure many of them.
Aaron was worried that if he openly refused to make the image, the children of Israel would split into groups who would fight with each other. That could lead to a civil war, something that must be avoided. If he rebuked them directly as Miriam the Prophet had, they might rebel and follow the lead of As-Samiri and make a statue-idol, and so disobey both God and His prophets. So Aaron decided to outwit them. He asked the people, “Which God shall we select for our image?”
One man who had come to Egypt from the distant country of India said they should make an image of Krishna who was a very handsome young man with blue eyes and blue skin. Another man who had come to Egypt from Greece said they should make an image of Apollo who was the divine son of the God Zeus. Most of the people who had lived all their lives in Egypt wanted an Egyptian God.
But when Aaron asked them which God they wanted for their image, they began to argue among themselves. Some wanted to make an image of Bastet the cat Goddess, while others wanted Amon the ram God. Some wanted to worship Osiris the God of the underworld, some wanted his sister Isis the Goddess of magic and others wanted their son Horus who appeared as a hawk and was the ancestor of all the Pharaohs.
They argued with each other for many days while Aaron kept hoping that Moses would soon return. Finally, As-Samiri said they should worship the cow Goddess Hathor who was the Goddess of music, dancing, fertility and childbirth. Hathor would save them from dying in the desert. Many of the people were very insecure because Moses had been gone for more than five weeks now, so they decided to follow As-Samiri’s direction.
When they told Aaron they were going to make an image of Hathor, the cow Goddess, Aaron again tried to outwit them. Aaron told them that the image would have to be made out of gold, and since a cow was very big they would need lots of gold. They would have to collect all the gold earrings from all the men, all the women and all the children in the camp so they would have enough gold to make a statue of a cow.
Aaron was sure that most of the people would refuse to give up their gold earrings. And most did refuse, but enough gave their gold rings so that three days later, a half dozen baskets filled with gold rings were brought in.
Aaron was very surprised and saddened. Now Aaron was trapped by his own words. He asked Miriam for advice. She told him to tell the people that there was not enough gold to make a cow. There was not even enough gold to make a calf, or even half a calf.
They should make a statue of Bastet, the cat goddess because they did have enough gold to make a cat. Perhaps they would realize how stupid it was to select which God to worship based on how big a statue they could make.
Aaron did not want to say this so he told the people they could make a small calf and place it on top of a big stone base. He hoped this would discourage them. But As-Samiri, the Egyptian magician, cast the gold in a fire and formed it as the cow Goddess Hathor. He formed it hollow so it would look very big.
Then As-Samiri secretly made hundreds of tiny pinholes in a line from its nose to its tail. He could see the tiny holes but no one else could. As-Samiri knew that when the wind blew, the holes in the calf would make a mooing sound, and the people would be very impressed.
When the golden colored calf was done, Aaron decided to stall for one more day by saying they would celebrate with the calf the next day which would be the 40 day since Moses first went up the left side of Mount Sinai. Aaron was sure Moses would return in time to stop the terrible thing that As-Samiri and some of the Children of Israel were going to do.
Early the next morning only three thousand people came to eat, drink, dance and even worship the golden colored calf. As they stood around watching to see what would happen, the wind blew and the calf made a mooing sound. “This is your God O Israel who brought you out of Egypt” shouted As-Samiri. “Bow down and worship Hathor.”
“Don’t do it!” shouted Aaron and his sister Miriam the Prophet, “This stupid statue is an idol.” Miriam stepped forward and punched the calf on its nose. The calf split in half.
“Half a calf is better than that dead man Moses,” said As-Samiri. “Moses is never coming back; and his God has abandoned all of you.”
Just then Moses and his assistant Joshua appeared on a cliff above them. Moses told them that by listening to As-Samiri and making an idol of a calf they had only wronged themselves. If they turned in repentance to the Holy One, and got rid of those who had been responsible for this great offense, they would purify themselves and God would surely accept their repentance and pardon them.
They should always remember that God would never abandon those who believe in Him. Sometimes they would have to wait patiently without losing faith, but God would never abandon the children of Abraham.
The promise of God lasts much longer than a statue of gold or silver. Their children’s children would read about this calf for more than 120 generations. Long after Hathor and all the other Gods of Egypt were forgotten Jews, Christians and Muslims all around the world would read about Moses and the golden calf and learn the lesson that faithfulness requires both trust and patience, because God will never abandon those who are faithful to Him.
After 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City Calif. Allen Maller retired in 2006. He is the editor of a series of High Holy Days prayer books; the author of a book on Jewish mysticism, “God, Sex and Kabbalah“; and the husband since 1966 of Judy Coopersmith. Visit his website at http://www.rabbimaller.com” target=”rabbi for more information.