The Golden Calf and Workaholism
Many commentators have noted that the story of Het Ha’egel – the sin of the golden calf – cannot be understood simply, to mean that Beneh Yisrael actually worshipped a golden image, thinking that it was a god. For one thing, it is hardly conceivable that they could make such a mistake just weeks after witnessing the miracles of the Exodus and beholding the Revelation of G-d at Ma’amad Har Sinai. Moreover, during the time of Het Ha’egel, Aharon announced to the people, "Hag L’Hashem Mahar" – "tomorrow is a festival for G-d!" The people still believed in and worshipped G-d, even during this unfortunate incident. And, it is clear from the story that the people sought a replacement not for G-d, but rather for Moshe, who did not return from atop Mount Sinai at the time they had expected. Clearly, the people were not seeking a new god to worship.
Different explanations have thus been offered for the nature of the sin of the golden calf.
One such explanation is presented in the work Yalkut Yehuda (Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg, Russia-Denver, 1888-1946). He notes that, as we read in the Book of Bereshit (46:34), the Egyptians despised shepherds – and for this reason they despised Beneh Yisrael, who worked primarily as shepherds. The Yalkut Yehuda explains that in the ancient world, farming was seen as a more reputable profession than shepherding. Farmers produced something tangible – food – whereas the shepherds brought their flocks to graze on the food produced by the farmers. Many people did not see the important benefits of raising sheep, and so they looked at shepherds with disdain. Therefore, the Egyptians despised Beneh Yisrael, and forced them to perform labor – claiming that shepherding was not productive, and that Beneh Yisrael needed to be coerced to do "real" work.
In light of this background, Beneh Yisrael might have intuitively figured that the solution to their problem was to give up shepherding, and to take on farming, instead. Since their shepherding is what caused the Egyptians to dislike them, they needed to stay away from this profession, and to instead devote themselves to farming in an effort to win the gentile nations’ favor and goodwill.
Moshe, however, taught the people that the solution lies is devotion to Hashem. Of course, there is nothing wrong with agriculture, and in fact, the Torah presents many laws relevant to farming, clearly working off the assumption that many among Beneh Yisrael would work as farmers. However, the people’s primary concern must be serving Hashem, studying His Torah and performing His Misvot.
When Moshe did not return from the mountaintop when the people expected, some decided it was time to abandon his teachings, and to return to their previous idea – namely, that they should embrace and devote themselves to farming. This, the Yalkut Yehuda explained, was the meaning of the golden calf. A young ox is the symbol of agriculture. Beneh Yisrael did not "worship" the calf in the sense of regarding it as a deity, but rather in the sense of making it their highest priority. They pinned all their hopes on a career in farming, viewing this as the solution, and thus making it their primary point of focus.
The sin of the golden calf was atoned through the construction of the Mishkan, at the center of which were the Kerubim (cherubs), which had their wings spread upward, toward the heavens. The message of the Mishkan was that our primary point of focus must be Hashem. Of course, we are expected to spend time "farming" – working and exerting effort. But this is not the ultimate source of our blessings, our wealth, or our security. All this comes only from Hashem.
The modern-day "golden calf," from this perspective, is the phenomenon of workaholism, people whose lives revolve around their professional pursuits, who think that everything depends upon their work. We must understand the message of the Kerubim – that our eyes and hearts must always be turned heavenward, that our highest priority and central focus must be Torah and Misvot. Work is important, but it is not the ultimate solution; it must never be the area of life around which everything else must revolve. Let us avoid the mistake of turning work into a "golden calf," and instead always remain focused on our commitment to G-d, even as we put in our required effort to earn a respectable living.