By HaRav Shaul Yisraeli zt"l
based on Siach Shaul, p. 289-290
There are many basic questions to consider when analyzing the sin of the Golden Calf. How is it that Bnei Yisrael changed their approach so quickly when Moshe came down from the mountain? After all, when Chur rebuked the people, they killed him (Sanhedrin 7a), and here Moshe destroyed their idol and enlisted the Tribe of Levi to fight the sinners without opposition!
Another difficulty: why did Moshe break the Tablets? While the Rabbis tell us that Bnei Yisrael were like apostates (Yevamot 62a), this is hard to understand considering their statements that only the Eirev Rav (Mixed Multitude) actually sinned in making the Golden Calf. Why did the rest of the people not deserve having the Tablets? It is even harder to understand why there was a thought of destroying the rest of the nation and starting again with Moshe (see Shemot 32:10)!
It appears that even those who made the Golden Calf were disappointed with it. They demanded a "god that would walk before us" (ibid. 1) – an ideal which would give purpose and leadership and take them into the Promised Land. After they made the Calf, they realized that they had nothing more than something to "play before" (ibid. 1), inspiring idol worship, adultery, and murder (Rashi ad loc.). That was a letdown, considering their dreams. So when Moshe wanted to destroy the Calf, there was not opposition. There was not much left of the dream and the ideal.
On the other hand, Moshe was highly disappointed with the rest of the people – the believers in Hashem. Where were they before? Why did they close their eyes instead of standing up against the dangerous plan? Where was the enthusiasm of "we shall do and hear"?
It appears that they had a letdown too. They had a goal of "I will take you out … and I will bring you to the Land" (Shemot 6:6-8), and that had not yet materialized. The Torah connects the Ten Commandments to the nitty-gritty laws of Mishpatim. They are made for a normal nation. There are discussion about servants and non-Jews, damages and oxen. The divine ideal is for a religious way of life that integrates everything, which sanctifies the mundane by dedicating physical life to Hashem.
Mishpatim tells us that the leadership is responsible to uphold the law (see Rashi, Shemot 21:1). But the people were in "desert mode," where they would sit back and eat the manna that was given to them and pull out the social weeds before they started to take over. That is the reason that the more righteous Israelites did not involve themselves in the lives of the Eirev Rav. The Israelites did not realize it would make a difference if the Eirev Rav had dangerous desires, ranging from a physical god to the need to immediately enter their own land. The "righteous" considered these to be foreign ideas with which they did not need to struggle. "Let the strangers remain with their own problems."
That is why Hashem’s fury extended to everyone – both the sinners and the apparent "adherents." The aloof adherents did not deserve the Tablets either! They should not be allowed to think it is possible to build a nation without "your friend’s home, his ox, and his donkey."