Israel at the brink

Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11-34:35
D’var Torah given at Minyan Masorti,
Germantown Jewish Centre,
March 10, 2012

What is in a word?
When is a plural singular?
Is it one God or many?
In one paragraph—-Exodus 32:1-5—-there are three references to God.  Each has a different meaning.
In Exodus 32:1 we learn:
“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him. ‘Come, makes us a god ELOHIM who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—-we do not know what happened to him.”
Aaron gets gold from the people and casts it into a molten calf.
At Exodus 32:4
“And then they exclaimed, ‘This is your god ELOHECHA, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”
At Exodus 32:5:
“When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron announced, ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival of HASHEM.”
Elohim, Elohecha—-could be singular or plural.  The verbs and adjectives are plural
Are we speaking of God or Gods.  Monotheism or polytheism?  On its face, the Israelites are violating the Second Commandment:
Exodus 20:3-4
“You shall have no other gods beside Me.  You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image.”
Clearly, the Israelites are violating the sculptured image. But are they also violating “No other gods?”  If Elohim is understood as plural… .then the possibilities are frightening.
The translations give conflicting hints.
Both Old and New JPS speak of god in the singular. King James translates Elohim as gods in the plural. Artscroll has the people first asking for gods—plural.  Then the people declare, “This is your god, singular, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” Richard Elliot Freedman uses gods—-plural.
The punishments also hint at what happened.  Three thousand ringleaders are killed.   The rest of the Israelites are forgiven. Aaron continues as High Priest.  
Though the literal Hebrew suggests that the people were worshipping other gods, many Commentators steer attention to the sculptured image.  One stream of thought limits the offenders to the mixed multitude, the riffraff who tagged along with the Israelites as they marched out of Egypt. The offenders describe the Golden Calf as “your god”—-not our god—-who brought you out of Egypt.  (Plaut Chumash). 
Another stream of scholarship sees the Golden Calf as a replacement for the missing Moses. Aryeh Kaplan’s translation, has the people asking Aaron, “Make us an oracle to lead us.  We have no idea what happened to Moses, the man who brought us out of Egypt.”   The people point to the golden calf and say, “This is your god, singular [possibly an oracle]  who brought you out of Egypt.”   
Nachmanides says that the people wanted a god to lead them, not a god to worship.  Bechor Shor says that the people asked for “Elohim” in the sense of a judge or magistrate, or leader.  Artscroll says that the Israelites remained loyal to HASHEM, but only 3,000 asked for a replacement for the missing Moses.
Gersonides has a theory for the worse.   In the context of Egyptian religion the Israelites wanted a talisman that would have divine power.  
Then there are theories of outright paganism. Richard Elliot Freedman says that in the ancient Middle East, the people did not worship animals or idols as such.  They pictured their gods as being on thrones.  Figures of bulls were on the thrones. Freedman says that the Israelites understood the Golden Calf as a throne platform for the gods (plural) whom they intended to worship. 
What about Aaron?   Did he intend the Golden Calf to be a throne platform for pagan gods or for HASHEM? After seeing the people celebrate at the Golden Calf, Aaron declares,  “Tomorrow will be a festival for HASHEM.” Was Aaron trying to steer the people back to HASHEM?   Or did he think they were worshipping HASHEM from the start?Richard Elliot Freedman says the text does not reveal what Aaron was thinking.

Rashbam suggests the worst:  The people demanded “some sort of idols, made by sorcery that would tell them everything they needed to know.” Were the Israelites only looking for a new leader?  Were the Mixed Multitude the only offenders?  Or does the literal Hebrew text say what it means.  Did the Israelites lapse into paganism?
Whatever the answer, Israel was on the brink.