Einstein is credited with the saying "The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limitations". When you read the news, you often get the sense that the genius had a strong point to make. The "Darwin awards" for stupid behaviour certainly have more nominees than the Nobel prize, or even the Oscars.
Take for example the would-be bank robber in the US, who took a liking to the female teller he held at gunpoint, so he left her his number before making off with the loot. Or the Idaho druggie who, instead of calling his dealer for more stash, dialled the detective trailing him. Society seems to have no shortage of fools. We Jews like to imagine that we are from the small percentage of smart people still walking this Earth.
How, then, do we explain the mega-blunder of the Golden Calf? You don't get much more foolish than that! I mean, the Jews had just witnessed firsthand how G-d runs the show and takes down His enemies in no-time. They had just had G-d Himself tell them in earth-shattering terms that they should have no other gods. They were still standing at the site of history's greatest Divine revelation, yet they fell apart and broke the most fundamental law by fashioning an idol.
Nothing about the story makes sense.
As you may imagine, there is no shortage of commentary on this bizarre event. One fascinating perspective is that you'll notice that the people made the Calf because they felt they needed to replace Moses, not G-d(the Torah says they made the Golden Calf because they felt that Moses had abandoned them). Those Jews didn't want to worship a foreign god, it's just that they had a scrambled sense of what a Jewish leader- orrabbi- is.
Moses wasn't always popular (look how many times the people questioned him and complained about his decisions). Moses' job was to teach, guide and coach people in taking on the difficult spiritual challenges (like stepping into a desert, relying on G-d for sustenance, taking on a set of life-governing laws etc.) that they would have preferred to avoid.
Before they received the Torah, Moses had played the role of saviour- the charismatic hero, who brought them inspiration and the promise of a better life. Moses had stood up for them against Pharaoh, he had dramatically taken them acroos the sea and treated them to excellent food and full Divine protection every day.
Then they got to Sinai. Suddenly, the caring, inspiring, accepting Moses turned into the law-giving Moses who expected you to uphold standards, change your life and conform. Oh, and he wasn't there as you needed him, either. Moses didn't arrive to service the community at precisely the time when they felt that he needed to be there for them.
So, they decided to look for a new leader, someone shaped to suit the community, rather than one who insisted on shaping the community. They wanted the sort of rabbi they could mould to work for them- the type who could be built by gold.
More likely, fascinating.
A very attractive proposition, they made: Fashion a "golden rabbi". It didn't only happen at Sinai, it's the natural reaction of individuals and communities throughout history. But, it undermines the whole idea of having a rabbi. Jewish leaders are not meant to win popularity ratings as much as they are meant to challenge us, push us and raise us to a higher spirtiual and religious plane. Moses and his successors will always push our buttons, occassionally let us down and always prompt us to move to become better Jews, especially when we no longer feel the urge to improve.