I am the third person from my Torah study group to present a d'var on this week's Torah portion on the story of the golden calf (Exodus 32). Each of us has interpreted the story differently, and, in fact, I find that every time I read the story, I read it differently.
You know the story and may even have seen the movie -- Moses goes up Mount Sinai to receive the law from God. He is gone for forty days and nights. During his absence, the Israelites ask Aaron to make a god for them. Aaron makes a graven image, a golden calf. Because the people worship the image, God wants to destroy the people, but Moses beseeches Him to spare them. Moses then goes down, throws the stone tablets to the ground, destroys the calf, and commands the Levites to kill many of the Israelites. Moses again ascends the mountain and brings back new stone tablets of the Law.
We are left with the question, why did the Israelites, as Psalm 106 says, exchange their glory for "the likeness of an ox that eats grass" (Ps.106:20)? What does this story mean? The answer is that the story means many different things and is accessible on many different levels. And we each focus on different meanings at different times.
Sometimes when I read the story of the golden calf, I am incredulous at the Hebrews' "what have you done for me lately" attitude toward God, who, after all, just three months before brought them out of Egypt, parted the Sea of Reeds, and led them to safety with a pillar of fire and a pillar of smoke. Frequently, when I read it, I am repulsed by Aaron's making a graven image, denying his actions, and not being punished. Always, I am shocked that Moses had the temerity to break the stone tablets of the Law, written by the finger of God. Usually, I am disgusted that Moses convinces God not to destroy the people by telling Him that the Egyptians would ridicule Him for bringing the people out only to destroy them -- although if I did a d'var on this same portion next year, I probably would focus on that same interaction between God and Moses deciding the Israelites' fate as a deft sketch of an enraged father and an anxious, frightened mother arguing about the appropriate punishment for a disobedient child.
This time when I read the story of the golden calf, instead of focusing on the Israelites' ingratitude toward God, I focused on what the people wanted when they asked for the golden calf. The Hebrews did not want a new god in the shape of a calf. Instead, they simply wanted to understand God. The plagues, the exodus from Egypt, the manna and quail, and the gathering at Mount Sinai were all miracles and as such are not susceptible of human understanding. When the people gathered to hear the word of God, they didn't hear the commandments; they heard only thunder, lightning, and the sound of a horn. (Ex. 20:15) Moses had to translate. They begged Moses to talk to God for them, whereupon Moses ascended Mount Sinai and stayed for forty days.
Meanwhile, back at the camp, the people are truly lost. They do not have their pillar of fire or Moses. Moses had been their intermediary with God; when he was away, they had no way of understanding this new type of God, so different from the familiar deities of the Egyptians and the neighboring tribes. They ask Aaron to make them a god to go before them to replace the pillar of fire because they do not know what had become of "that man Moses" (Ex. 32:1). Aaron thinks they want an idol, but this doesn't make sense. After all, the people ask Aaron to make the god, they supply the raw materials, and they probably watch Aaron carve the thing. Surely, they could not be so credulous to believe literally that the calf is the god that brought them out of Egypt.
I believe that what they actually want is the the safety and certainty that an idol brings. Making a graven image after all is an attempt to reduce God to something manageable, to something that can be carried around or, when no longer interesting, be put in a box out of the way. People can understand an idol. The Hebrews hoped to do the same with God -- to define and understand Him. But by definition, a definition is limiting: to define God is to limit Him. Moses argued that if God destroyed the people, the Egyptians would say that God had delivered the people for evil. Moses is warning that the Egyptians might believe mistakenly that they understood God and might imagine even that God's powers were limited geographically, that God was just another tribal deity. We should take heed of that warning.
The story of the book of the Exodus is the story of the creation of a people -- and the story of those people trying to understand and define the God Who chose them. Not only are they unable to define God, the Torah also makes it clear that people will remain distant from God. If they touch the holy mountain, they will die. They literally cannot understand God. When God talks, the people hear only thunder. When Moses breaks the tablets of the law, the people lose their only chance even to study words written by God, because apparently Moses is the scrivener of the replacement tablets. (Ex. 34:28)
Moses, too, remains at a distance from God and even from the Israelites for whom he translates. When Moses asks "show me now thy ways that I may know thee" ( Exodus 33:13), God agrees to let all His goodness pass before Moses and agrees to show Moses His back, but says "none can see my face and live" (Exodus 33:19). Even that is too much: after Moses returns from talking with God, bearing the replacement tablets, Moses's face radiates beams of light, or grew horns, according to some translations, and it doesn't matter which because he is so frightening that he must cover his face from everyone but God. (Ex. 34:30)
The Torah makes it clear another way that we cannot define God. Although graven images are explicitly forbidden, the Torah describes God in many different ways. God appears to Abraham as a man (Gen. 18:2), to Jacob as a man or an angel (Gen. 32:25), to Moses from out of a burning bush (Exodus 3:4), as a cloud standing next to Moses (Ex. 34:5), as well as goodness passing before him and as a voice. He appears to the people of Israel as pillars of fire and smoke and as thunder after descending upon Mt. Sinai in fire. (Ex. 19:18) He later approaches Elijah not out of the thunder but as a still small voice. ( I Kings 19:11) He is corporeal enough to savor the smell of smoke from sacrifices. Moses states that God is not a form but only a voice (Deut. 4:12), but he goes on to say that if the people insist on making graven images, the people will be scattered and left to "serve gods, the work of men's hands, wood and stone, which neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell." (Deut. 4:28). But even Moses, who directly speaks with God, must remain uncertain: when Moses first faces God at the burning bush, Moses asks God's name, the most basic step in defining Him, God answers only " I am that I am" (Ex. 3:14).
Yes, some of this is metaphor, some of it reworked Egyptian and Sumerian mythology, and some, no doubt, is a sign of the process of people's idea of God changing over time from an anthropomorphic image to something more ethereal. But if that were the only point, it would have been easy for one of the redactors of the Torah to edit out more primitive theories or images of God to present a final, consistent idea of God. Rather than being contradictions or historical development, to me, the point is that God is not one image or even just one voice. He is experienced differently by each person, but God is not limited by that experience. According to the Book of Exodus, He is "the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob," (Ex. 3:6) each of whom had a different relationship with God. No-one, including Moses or Aaron, can define God. As Job discovered, God requires belief, not understanding.
So, is it wrong to try to understand God? I believe that rather than seeking to understand God in a general sense, each of us must try to determine our relationship to God as individuals and as Jews, including those actions necessary to fulfill our obligations to God. But we cannot put God in a box and say, or believe, that we have defined, limited, and contained God. We cannot change a golden calf into a god, and more importantly, we cannot change God into a golden calf.