In this week’s portion, the Jews commit the grievous sin of the golden calf. How could it be that a mere forty days after having heard G-d’s voice at Sinai, the Jews were willing to betray Him? This becomes even more inexplicable when we take into consideration that three months earlier, they had seen with their own eyes the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea. Furthermore, why does G-d tell Moshe "on the day of My accounting, I shall reckon their sin (of the golden calf) against them" (Ch.32 v.34)? This implies that this sin will forever be held against the Jewish nation. Why?
It is crucial for us to understand that the sin committed by the Jews was not a sin replacing G-d with an idol. After all they had seen this would have been, at the very least, unpractical of them. Which idol could split the sea and have killed all the firstborn of an enemy nation? The Jews considered building the golden calf when, due to their miscalculation, they thought Moshe was late coming down from the mountain. When they saw he was not coming, they thought they needed a new intermediary between them and G-d. They saw themselves as being unable to have a direct communication with G-d. This was a serious error.
Maimonides, in his thirteen principles of belief, explains this concept: "I believe that the Creator knows all the deeds of human beings and their thoughts", as it is said in Psalms (Ch.33 v.15), "He understands all their actions". And as it says in principal five: "To Him alone is it proper to pray and not to any other". These two principles taken together are telling us that G-d deals directly with man, and man deals directly with G-d!
The reason why G-d will always remember this ancient sin is that, unfortunately, it has always been one of our greatest stumbling blocks. We are loath to accept upon ourselves this awesome responsibility of a personal relationship with G-d. This has been human nature for thousands of years, the basic human need to seek an intermediary; there are Jewish groups today who have gone so far as to choose a dead person as an intermediary between them and G-d! Whenever the Jews felt the urge to deify a human being, to make a false messiah (the two go hand in hand), the situation has always ended in catastrophe.
While at Sinai, the Jews heard only the first two commandments from G-d Himself. They then complained to Moshe: "If we continue to hear the voice of G-d we shall die!" (Deut. Ch.5 v.22). Some of the commentators criticize the Jews for this, saying that the Jews were scared of the increased responsibility which would have come as a result of them hearing it directly from G-d!
May we learn from this to appreciate the awesome and lofty souls we have, and to know we can always communicate directly with G-d.