One of the most well-known – and disturbing – sins committed by the Children of Israel was building a golden calf just 40 days after receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai. On today’s daf the Gemara offers a number of aggadic interpretations of that incident.
According to the students of the school of Rabbi Yannai, Moshe laid the blame for the Golden Calf on God, given the generosity that He showed the people in giving them gold and silver. Illustrating this point the Gemara quotes Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba in the name of Rabbi Yoḥanan who said:
This is comparable to a person who had a son; he bathed him and anointed him with oil, fed him and gave him drink, and hung a purse of money around his neck. Then, he brought his son to the entrance of a brothel. What could the son do to avoid sinning?
The Gemara continues:
It is stated: “And the Lord said to Moshe: Go and descend, for your people whom you have lifted out of the land of Egypt have been corrupted” (Shmot 32:7). What is the meaning of “go and descend”?
Rabbi Elazar said: The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Moshe: Moshe, descend from your greatness. Isn’t it only for the sake of Israel, so that you may serve as an emissary, that I granted you prominence; and now that Israel has sinned, why do I need you? There is no need for an emissary.
Immediately, Moshe’s strength waned and he was powerless to speak in defense of Israel. And once God said to Moshe: “Leave Me be, that I may destroy them” ( 9:19), Moshe said to himself: If God is telling me to let Him be, it must be because this matter is dependent upon me. Immediately Moshe stood and was strengthened in prayer, and asked that God have mercy on the nation of Israel and forgive them for their transgression.
The Maharsha points out that the phrase, “go and descend,” is not interpreted as a command to literally descend the mountain, but as a symbolic expression. As God did not tell Moshe what to do once he descended the mountain, apparently, this is a statement removing Moshe from his position of prominence. In his Tziyyun LeNefesh Ḥayya Rav Yehezkel Landau explains that this seems to be the case, as, after commanding him to descend, God continued to speak to Moses, indicating that “go and descend” refers to descent from prominence, not from the mountain