In the Torah portion of Ki Tissa, we read about the sin of the golden calf. There are various opinions as to how the Jewish people could have transgressed so gravely by making and worshipping the calf so soon after they had experienced the Sinai revelation and received the Ten Commandments.
The Ramban writes that the Jewish people mistakenly thought that in the absence of Moshe they could use the molten image of the golden calf to channel the energy of certain angels who would direct them as to how to travel in the desert. Thus, the calf was supposed to replace Moshe rather than replace G-d. This is why when Moshe returned, they immediately went back to following him. The Ohr Hachaim adds that they thought it was only forbidden to have an intermediary while Moshe was alive. In fact, they thought that it was only in the merit of Moshe that G-d was leading them and that in Moshe’s absence they were not worthy of His direct oversight and thus needed an intermediary.
An Image of G-d
Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi, author of the Kuzari, explains it differently. He says that the Jewish people were making an image which represented the almighty G-d and that their intention was to worship G-d through this manifestation.
Folly of the Riffraff
According to the Kli Yakar, it was a more direct form of worship instigated by the Erev Rav (mixed multitude of converts who had left Egypt with them). They thought that Moshe had been using some sort of talisman to perform the miracles and that his brother Aharon might know what instrument he used and should, therefore, make it for them to utilize his knowledge about it.
These mistakes led to the terrible sin of the golden calf for which we are still suffering today.
Yeravam’s Golden Calves
The golden calf described in this Torah portion was the first such idol that the Jewish people made but it was not the last. Several generations later, Yeravam, son of Nevat, who had become the king of the Northern ten tribes when the kingdom split after the death of King Solomon, fashioned two more golden calves. He did this because he wanted to provide the Jewish people with an alternate place to worship outside of Jerusalem. He was afraid that if the people would go to the Beit HaMikdash in Jerusalem, they would realize that Rechavam, son of King Solomon, king of the tribes of Yehudah and Benjamin, was the main king of the Jewish people. To prevent this, Yeravam forbade the Jews in the Northern kingdom to travel to Jerusalem and instead instructed them to worship the two golden calves in the temples which he built in Beth El and in Dan. He established a new holiday on the 15th day of the month of Cheshvan.
The Talmud explains how Yeravam tricked the people into the terrible sin of idolatry. He organized a meeting for all of the people to pledge their allegiance to him. He was careful to arrange the seating so that every tzadik (righteous person) was seated next to a (secret) rasha (wicked person). Then he asked them all to sign a paper that said that they were willing to follow all of Yeravam’s commands up to and including if he would tell them to serve idols. At first the righteous people refused. But then the wicked ones (who appeared to be righteous) that were sitting next to each one, said, “Do you really think that the righteous Yeravam would ask us to serve idols?” (Yeravam was a great Torah scholar, and up until that point, had been a righteous man. In fact, the Talmud says that all of the other Torah scholars were like grass of the field compared to Yeravam and the prophet Achiyah HaShiloni.) “Certainly, he is only asking you to sign this as an exaggerated show of your support.” The righteous people agreed and signed. Later, when Yeravam established these idols, he showed these signatures to the people to “prove” that the tzadikim of the generation agreed that one should follow Yeravam even to serve idols. The righteous men protested and said that this was not their intention, but the simple people did not believe them.
Achiyah, the Shilonite, the prophet who had anointed Yeravam, was also fooled by this plot and signed the note. Several generations later another king by the name of Yehu was influenced to serve idols when he saw the signature of Achiyah on the above note (see below).
The commentaries say that Achiyah didn’t sign a paper saying that he was willing to serve idols at Yeravam’s behest. Rather, he signed a paper saying that he would follow every request Yeravam might make. Since he did not specify that this is did not include a transgression of the laws of the Torah, it was misunderstood to mean that he was willing to do everything Yeravam requested, even to serve idols. This can be contrasted with the allegiance that the Jewish people gave to Yehoshua where they alluded that they must obey G-d above all, as the verse says, “Any man who flouts your commands and does not obey every order you give him shall be put to death. רַ֖ק חֲזַ֥ק וֶאֱמָֽץ – Only be strong and resolute!”The Talmud says that the word רַ֖ק (only) alludes to a limitation in their commitment to Yehoshua, that their allegiance to G-d would be a priority over their allegiance to him.
Yehu, the Revolutionary who Regressed
King Yehu was one of the few righteous kings of the Northern kingdom. He was anointed by the prophet Yonah and given instruction to wipe out the corrupt and idolatrous house of Achav. Yehu fulfilled this mission, as the verse says, “And Yehu struck down all that were left of the House of Ahab… till he left him no survivor.”
Yehu went on to kill out all of the priests and worshippers of the idol Ba’al. As a result of these accomplishments, the prophet promised him that he would have four generations of kings.
Despite this, Yehu went on to worship the golden calves that Yeravam had made (see above). According to one opinion in the Talmud, he saw the paper where Achiyah signed his allegiance to Yeravam and based on that believed that worshipping these calves was not a sin.
Punished for Following the Prophet’s Instructions?
According to the prophet Hoshe’a, when the house of Yehu was wiped out by Shalum ben Yavesh, it was a punishment for the fact that Yehu had liquidated the family of Achav, as it says, “I will soon punish the House of Yehu for the bloody deeds at Jezreel [where he killed the family of Achav] and put an end to the monarchy of the House of Israel.”
The Chafetz Chaim explained that, although Yehu was following the prophet’s instructions when he wiped out the house of Achav, since he went on to commit the same sins for which Achav’s house was liquidated, Yehu’s bloody coup was considered, in retrospect, to be an act of murder rather than one of religious zeal. This is a lesson to anyone who punishes someone for their wrongdoings (e.g., a teacher towards his students). If the one who did the punishing goes on to commit the same sin that he punished the other person for committing, he will then be judged harshly for having punished that person. In retrospect, his actions are considered to be not out of religious zeal, but rather for a self-serving purpose.
May we all merit to serve Hashem with a pure heart!
The Maharal (in Chidushei Agadot) explains that this sin affected the character of the Jewish people which in turn, was a cause for their further sins. As such, the punishments are for that sin as well.
 The law states that only a king from the Davidic dynasty may sit in the Avarah (courtyard of the Beit HaMikdash). When the people would see Rechavam seated while Yeravam had to stand they might come to the above conclusion (Sanhedrin, 101b).
 Sanhedrin ibid.
 Yad Ramah ibid. He concludes that anyone who explains the passage differently (i.e., that Achiyah HaShiloni signed that he would be willing to serve idols) will need to answer (to G-d) for this (i.e., for disrespecting Achiyah).
 Ibid, 18 – 28
 Ibid, verse 30
 Sanhedrin 102a
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach!