Parashat Ki-Tisa is a difficult parasha. Until now, everything unfolds more or less smoothly. Benei Yisrael left Egypt amidst wondrous miracles, the Yam Suf split in their honor, they have been accompanied by a pillar of cloud and a pillar fire, manna descends from the heavens to feed them – the perfect, ideal situation! True, we find small complaints here and there, but Benei Yisrael arrive at Ma”amad Har Sinai “as one person with one heart,” and they declare, “Na”aseh venishma!” (“We will do and we will hear!”); they are at the highest level. And now, suddenly, in an instant, everything falls apart: “The nation gathered around Aharon and said to him, ”Go make us a god who will walk before us.” What happened? How could it be that the God whose wonders and miracles they saw as clearly as they could suddenly needs a replacement? How could a nation that had reached such a high level at Ma”amad Har Sinai deteriorate to the point where they take a golden calf and announce, “This is your god, Israel, who took you out from the land of Egypt”?
Moreover, even after the Almighty forgives Benei Yisrael, He does not grant them complete absolution for their wrongdoing. Commenting on the pasuk, “But when I make an accounting, I will bring them to account for their sin” (32:34), Rashi writes, “Always, whenever I make an accounting for their sins, I will make somewhat of an account for this sin, as well, with the other sins. No calamity comes upon Israel that does not involve some retribution for the sin of the calf.” Meaning, to this very day, throughout all the generations, this ancient sin continues to have an impact. What happened to Benei Yisrael that they reached such a condition, and why are we punished for this until today?
Many answers have been written for this question. Here I will try to answer by focusing on the difference between how this sin is described by Moshe and by the Almighty. When Hashem tells Moshe to go down from the mountain because the nation sinned, He says, “They made for themselves an egel maseicha” – a molten image of a calf. But after Moshe returns to the people and gets involved in the matter firsthand, he returns to Hashem and says, “This nation has committed a grave sin, they made for themselves an elohei zahav” – a god of gold. They did not make an image, according to Moshe, they did not make a calf – but rather a new god, a god of gold. What underlies this change? In order to understand the difference, we must realize the source of this gold. When Benei Yisrael left Egypt, Hashem instructed Moshe, “Please speak with the nation that each should ask from his fellow and every woman from her friend silver and gold utensils.” When Benei Yisrael left from bondage to freedom, at the same time they turned into the wealthiest people in the world. All the wealth of Egypt now came into their hands; whatever remained was given to them later, after the splitting of the sea, when the Egyptians perished at the seashore. When Benei Yisrael now stand in the wilderness and look for a god, they automatically attach themselves to the second god they knew when they left Egypt – their gold. They lose the ability to distinguish between He whom they must serve and that which is but the means to serve Him. When such a situation arises, gold can be taken and declared a god – the ultimate purpose for which we must work. Benei Yisrael”s sin involved their taking the means and turning it into a deity. When this happens, and in every generation when Benei Yisrael once again forget what is primary and what is secondary, chet ha”egel will once again be held against them.
But Hakadosh Baruch Hu does not leave us without any light in the darkness, or without any cure to the illness. According to Rashi, the command to construct the Mishkan occurred after chet ha”egel and came to atone for their wrongdoing. When Benei Yisrael take the gold and understand that it serves as but the means, through which they can even build a home for the Almighty – such a home is the most worthy place for the residence of the Shechina among us.
There is nothing inherently wrong with gold and wealth. What could be wrong is how we view it and what we do with it. If we know how to take the bounty that Hashem bestows upon us and channel it towards the right purpose, we, too, will earn the great privilege of Hashem”s residence among us, speedily and in our days.