The sin of the Golden Calf is one of the most difficult to fathom of the sins of Bnei Yisrael in the Chumash. Sill at the foot of Har Sinai, merely forty days since experiencing the revelation on Har Sinai and hearing Hashem directly proclaim: “I am Hashem your G-d…”, “You shall have no other gods besides Me”, it is mind-boggling trying to understand how Bnei Yisrael violated that exact prohibition that they themselves heard. Indeed all the commentators over the ages have tried to explain what happened.
It is possibly even more perplexing though to reveal that Rashi tells us that the sin of the Golden Calf was already a foregone conclusion before it even happened! Towards the end of Parshat Mishpatim, before Moshe returns to Bnei Yisrael with the Mitzvot he received from Hashem from “amidst the thick cloud”, Hashem informs him:
“I am sending an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have made ready.”
Rashi comments: “Here they were informed that they would sin and that the Shechinah would have to tell them, (Shmot 33:3) “for ‘I’ will not go up among you”.
This is apparently a very strange foresight. Why was it evident already at the revelation at Har Sinai that the nation would sin? They were at the peak of closeness to Hashem of possibly any generation in the history of mankind, why was their sin imminent? Possibly, the answer to this question can be found when looking back at what happened at the Revelation at Har Sinai.
It is well known that there are 613 Mitzvot in total. It is similarly known that on Har Sinai we received the Ten Commandments. Why did we receive only ten of the 613 Mitzvot at the Revelation? Intuitively we would think that it was the will of Hashem to give us directly only the first ten and the others would be transmitted through Moshe. However, it appears from the verses that the decision to stop the Revelation after the Ten Commandments was the decision of Bnei Yisrael, not of Hashem. The verses say after the last of the Ten Commandments:
“All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the shofar and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance.
“You speak to us,” they said to Moshe, “and we will obey; but let not G-d speak to us, lest we die.”…
So the people remained at a distance, while Moshe approached the thick cloud where G-d was.
Hashem said to Moshe: Thus shall you say to Bnei Yisrael…..”
The initiative to stop the direct revelation came from Bnei Yisrael. The Rashbam explains that had they not stopped the direct speech of Hashem, Hashem would have continued to directly transmit all of the mitzvoth to them. The subsequent words ” Hashem said to Moshe: Thus shall you say to Bnei Yisrael….” marks the end of the Revelation and the beginning, or rather reverting back to the mode of Moshe the mediator between Hashem and Bnei Yisrael. Never again, from this moment onwards will the Bnei Yisrael hear directly the “voice” of Hashem!
However, what difference does it make hearing the Mitzvot directly from Hashem or through his faithful servant and messenger Moshe?
The Rambam, in his Guide to the Perplexed, explains that before Moshe Rabeinu, no one ever spoke to people in the Name of G-d with instructions for them to fulfil:
“… you must understand what I am about to tell you… Any one who in those days laid claim to authority, based it either, like Abraham, on the fact that, by reasoning and by proof he had been convinced of the existence of a Being who rules the whole Universe, or that some spiritual power was conferred upon him by a star, by an angel, or by a similar agency; but no one could establish his claim on prophecy, that is to say, on the fact that G-d had spoken to him, or had entrusted a mission to him: before the days of Moshe no such assertion had ever been made. You must not be misled by the statements that G-d spoke to the Patriarchs, or that He had appeared to them. For you do not find any mention of a prophecy which appealed to others, or which directed them. Avraham, Yitzchak, or Ya’akov, or any other person before them did not tell the people, “G-d said unto me, you shall do this thing, or you shall not do that thing.” or “G-d has sent me to you.” Far from it! for G-d spoke to them on nothing but of what especially concerned them, i.e., He communicated to them things relating to their perfection, directed them in what they should do, and foretold them what the condition of their descendants would be; nothing beyond this. They guided their fellow-men by means of argument and instruction…”
Moshe Rabeinu introduced into the world the concept of acceptance based on belief rather than based on clear understanding. What Am Yisrael experienced on Har Sinai during the revelation was clarity firsthand without the need of blind acceptance.
“Bnei Yisrael heard the first and the second commandments from G-d, i.e., they learnt the truth of the principles contained in these two commandments in the same manner as Moshe, and not through Moshe. For these two principles, the existence of G-d and His Unity, can be arrived at by means of reasoning, and whatever can be established by proof is known by the prophet in the same way as by any other person; he has no advantage in this respect.”
When Am Yisrael, by their own volition, took a step back from Hashem on Har Sinai they were effectively taking a step back from closeness to the truth itself, and despite their commitment to remain loyal to the Mitzvot that would be transmitted from then on by Moshe, the seeds of sin had been sown at that moment.
Ever since Har Sinai, Am Yisrael has embarked on the journey back to that moment of revelation through our never-ending quest for truth and clarity. Anyone familiar with Talmud study is aware of the Talmud’s relentless approach towards soundness of proofs. Whenever a question is raised and an answer suggested, more often than not the Talmud will reject what often seems a sound proof by suggesting that it may be dealing with a different or unrelated topic. “Believe me” never seems to be a valid claim in the Talmud’s Beit Midrash. This is all reflective of that quest for firsthand truth.
Progress in this pursuit could possibly explain the meaning of this fascinating prophecy of Yermiyahu:
“See, a time is coming—declares Hashem—when I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel and the House of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers, when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, a covenant which they broke, though I espoused them—declares Hashem.
But such is the covenant I will make with the House of Israel after these days—declares the Hashem: I will put My Teaching into their inmost being and inscribe it upon their hearts. Then I will be their G-d, and they shall be My people.
No longer will they need to teach one another and say to one another, “know Hashem”; for all of them, from the least of them to the greatest, shall know Me—declares Hashem. For I will forgive their iniquities, And remember their sins no more.”
 Shmot 20;18
 Shmot 23;20
 Shmot 20;15-19
 Rambam, Guide 1;63
 Rambam, Guide 2;33
 Yirmiyahu 31;31-34