The Golden Calf was a catastrophe of absolutely colossal proportions. You might expect that people who witnessed the most overtly supernatural public miracles before or since when God took them out of Egypt, followed by the cataclysmic Splitting of the Sea, might think that they were in safe hands and things would work out. And yet, Moses disappeared for a little longer than they expected, and they panicked. The mob cornered Ahron and demanded he come up with something to lead them:
וַיִּקָּהֵל הָעָם עַל־אַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו קוּם עֲשֵׂה־לָנוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר יֵלְכוּ לְפָנֵינוּ כִּי־זֶה מֹשֶׁה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לֹא יָדַעְנוּ מֶה־הָיָה לוֹ – The people gathered against Ahron and said to him, “Make us a god who will go before us, because Moshe, the man who brought us from the land of Egypt – we do not know what happened to him.” (32:1)
Especially seeing that those people had seen, it was a massive betrayal, and obviously, the aftermath was ugly. Moshe destroyed the Tablets containing the Ten Commandments, quite literally shattering the covenant between God and the Jewish People, and God sent a plague.
What happens next is interesting and important.
R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that this is the very first time the Jewish People have been on the receiving end of God’s severity. The only historical paradigm up this point is that God gets angry at you, it’s over. Destruction and annihilation wouldn’t be a surprise, and the Golden Calf was a close a call as any. But that’s not what happens.
Instead of just destroying them, God specifically tells Moshe how He’s feeling:
וְעַתָּה הַנִּיחָה לִּי וְיִחַר־אַפִּי בָהֶם וַאֲכַלֵּם וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אוֹתְךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל – “Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make you the great nation.” (32:10)
What’s so interesting about this is that God doesn’t need to threaten anyone or share how He’s feeling; He can just do things, and that’s why He’s called God. The idea of a threat is specifically to provoke the desired response in the person being threatened. Recognizing this prompt, Moshe successfully persuades God to forgive the people.
The very next thing that happens after the Golden Calf is God’s instruction to build the Mishkan. R’ Hirsch explains that even before the sinners could undergo rituals or offer sacrifices, Hashem had already paved a pathway forward for them.
For the first time, and on at least two fronts, God established plainly to humans that our relationship can withstand missteps. The Golden Calf was the first and worst thing the Jewish People could do, and we could still find our way because God is not only waiting, but inviting us back.
Whatever mistakes we’ve made, we can take heart that we can always make amends.