The Rambam explains that avoda zora was initially conceived as a way for us to connect to Hashem. The representations of the idols were understood not to be a deity onto themselves, rather the objective was to use these objects to connect to the powers above that are non-physical, in order to connect to Hashem. This is forbidden as avoda zora, even though the worshipper understands that even those forces are only secondary to the ultimate power of Hashem. Similarly, to have any kind of physical representation of Hashem Himself is forbidden. In fact, the Mabit (שער היסודות פרק ט) explains that the second of the ten commandments is referring to this exact idea.
People seem to feel a need to connect in a way that is tangible.
While Bnei Yisrael understood that Moshe Rabbeinu was only a messenger of Hashem, they felt that without him to act as a conduit to facilitate their relationship with Hashem, they would not be able to connect to Hashem properly. Thus, when Moshe did not return at the appointed time, the golden calf was created to replace him as the conduit for their relationship with Hashem.
This explanation is given by the Oneg Yom Tov as to what the sin of the Golden Calf was. It is left for one to ponder “so how are we to connect to Hashem if we have this need?” I would like to sharpen this point. I once read a response to people who complain that they cannot understand the ways of Hashem: “So what do you want? A G-d that you can understand?!” The inference of this is simple: We feel a need to understand everything, and we try to explain it away so that we can relate to it. However, a fundamental principle of being a servant of G-d is to understand, as the Rambam says in the 13 Testaments of Faith, “He has no body, and those who live in the world of forms are excluded from the ability to fathom Hashem”. This means the more that we acknowledge our inability to understand Hashem, the greater our service as a servant will become.
To better understand this concept, imagine a small boy who goes to Kita Aleph and learns a verse of the Torah from his Rebbe. As far as this boy is concerned, he thinks that he completely understands the verse. The father of this same boy can go to a shiur at night and hear a kaleidoscope of explanations of the same verse from Rashi, Ramban, Sforno, and Ibn Ezra. This father then sits down with his son to learn this one verse. When the son sees the father’s perplexed expression (as he tries to mentally sort out all the different and contradictory explanations) he says “I will explain it to you!” We all understand that what the little boy understands fully isn’t even where the questions begin. The deeper we learn the Torah, the more we understand the chasm between the text and our full understanding of it. Our need to fully close this gap is not an expression of our service to Hashem, but rather we are self-serving in order to feel in control (as opposed to someone who wants to learn in order to know as much as he can) . We live in a time that there are many people who feel that they can be bible critics or “correct the mistakes of Chazal” (Hashem have mercy on them!). Those people have fallen into the sin of the golden calf. The erliche Jew understands that not understanding brings him closer to Hashem. Yet at the same time, we have an obligation to delve, extrapolate and expand on the ideas of the Torah to make it as understandable to us as possible. This enigma is something that the religious Jew is comfortable with, and the “erev rav” – who were the instigators of the sin of the golden calf – were (and are) befuddled by. This year, as we learn about the golden calf, let us approach our learning using Shlomo Hamelech’s dictum (Koheles 7:23) “I thought I could become wise, but it is beyond me”.