In an ancient world of paganism, Israel was given a mission of purpose and holiness. They encountered G-d and accepted the Torah, ate the Manna and lived within the Clouds of Glory. Moshe had led a nation of slaves from servitude to sanctity, and when he departed from amidst Israel to ascend Mount Sinai for a 40 day sabbatical of spiritual instruction, his people were left to bask in the glory of the radiant present and the promising future. Instead, worried that Moshe had in fact perished atop the mountain, masses of Israelite men flocked to worship a calf of molten gold—an outright betrayal of the Almighty, the Torah and the devoted leader of Israel.
While there is significant discussion amongst the commentators as to the exact nature of the sin, my teacher Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik explained to me that this entire matter of the golden calf expresses the magnitude of Moshe’s force of personality. Once they were physically separated from their steward, a segment of Israel was unable to uphold the basic standards of perfect monotheism which define the Jewish faith. The same people who once exclaimed, “We will do and we will listen” (Shemos 24:7) now desecrated the commandment not to make any other gods when they instructed Aaron to “make us a god who shall go before us” (Shemos 32:1) and exclaimed to their brethren that the golden calf which emerged from the fire “is your god, Israel, who brought you out of Egypt” (Shemos 32:4).
The basic responsibility of any educator, particularly one of Judaic studies, surpasses the limits of facts and intellect. The teacher, the Dean, the Rosh HaYeshiva, must inspire his students in a manner that will transcend the temporal and spatial dimensions of the school building. If the teacher of Talmud has successfully communicated the message of his subject, the student may very well forget the folios of the Talmud that his Rebbe taught, but the disciple will hopefully remember the Rebbe who taught him those folios of the Talmud when challenged and confronted outside the shelter of the classroom.
Moshe’s accomplishments are indisputable, and it is unfair to cast aspersions upon him because of the deceit of Israel’s idolaters. Moshe did not fail the people; the sinners caused their own self-destruction. A great quarterback needs proper receivers, and in this case the transgressors amongst Israel truly dropped the ball. Just as “there arose a new king over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Shemos 1:8), the scores who worshiped the golden calf chose to supplant the spirit of Moshe with the figure of a molten calf. Only through the likes of they who remembered Moshe even during his absence, those myriad of scholars and laymen who did not ascribe pagan significance to the calf, would Moshe successfully transmit his message of the eternity of Torah and the destiny of Israel for the benefit of all generations.