The story of the Golden Calf is well-known, at least that's what people think. In brief, the popular understanding is that Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, goes up to Har Sinai to get the Luchos. After 40 days he doesn't come back, the people panic and compel Aharon to build an idol which turns out to be the Golden Calf. The people declare that this image is their new god until Moshe shows up, smashes the Luchos and restores God's authority over the nation.
Then come all the questions, like how the people could go and build an idol, in effect denying God's rule over them only forty days after experiencing the Divine revelation? A close reading of the text, with the help of some of the important commentators changes that perception quickly.
The first thing to note is the request itself:
"And when the people saw that Moshe delayed to come down from the mountain, they gathered themselves until Aharon and said unto him: Get up and make for us an elohim that will go before us, for as for this Moshe, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what had become of him." (Shmos 32:1)
An accurate reading of the text establishes the true motive of the people who requested the image. It was to replace Moshe, not God, in their lives. Consider Moshe's role until that point in the narrative of the Exodus. He had acted as God's representative at almost every stage. He had announced the redemption, called forth al but the last of the ten plagues. He had raised his hands to split the sea, hit the rock to bring forth water and led the people politically. He had also been appointed to receive the Torah from God by the people after the giving of the Ten Commandments. At this point, therefore, the B'nei Yisrael were completely used to a model in which an intermediary stood between them and God. The idea of a personal God, one that could lead each of them directly and at the same time all of them together as a nation without a human messenger was completely unknown to them. In the absence of Moshe, is it any wonder therefore that they wanted a replacement?
As for the word elohim, it is used throughout the Torah as "authority" or "judges" and in this context it does not necessarily refer to a new diety to replace God. Remember that the presence of God still hung above the mountain where Moshe was. To create a substitute authority for the Master of the Universe would have been inconceivable.
But if it was guidance they were seeking, then how did the situation get so out of hand? Clearly their sin was severe. As Chazal tell us (and Rashi notes), "there is no punishment of B'nei Yisrael that does not include some of the punishment for the Golden Calf." If all they were doing was creating a substitute intermediary why such harshness?
For this, we need to consider a further, interesting fact. There are two objects mentioned in the latter half of Shmos which shared one important characterstic: they were both made solely of gold.
"And I said unto them: Whosever hath any gold, let them break it off; so they gave it to me and I ast it into the far and there came out this calf." (32:24)
Rashi notes the phrase "there came out this calf" and states that Aharon threw the gold into the fire. The Midrash tells us the story that the two sons of Balaam happened to be present and cast magic spells on the fire and out came the fully formed calf, made of pure gold.
The Menorah, similarly, was also made of pure gold, in contradistinction to all the other appurtenances in the Mishkan. Not only that, but it wasn't made of pieces of gold welded together but of a single block of gold, the same as the Calf.
If this is correct, what might the connection be between the two items, the Calf and the Menorah? I would suggest the following: The Menorah was intended to give off light and be a beacon for the intellectual well-being of our people. The Calf was intended to be a substitute for Moshe so the people would have a desired intermediary between them and God. In both cases, the items in question were tools to be used towards a specific end.
Yet how differently they functioned! The Menorah, lit daily in a solemn ceremony, focused people on the holiness of the Mishkan, the central sanctuary of our people in the desert. Its effect was to increase the piety and intellectual commitment of our ancestors. The Calf, on the other hand, because a focus for lewdness and riotous behaviour. It served as the justification for the establishment of a new order, one which retained no holiness of the God-inspired one.
And from this we can see the common feature, that of the tool. In both cases, a golden object acts to channel the people but it is the people themselves that choose the way they wish to be channeled. The gold itself has nothing to do with that. We have free will, to be both used and abused.
In the same way, we can look around and what surrounds us in this world and see the same thing everywhere. The vastness of modern society that permeates our lives is filled with tools: media, electronic, constructive and the like. In every case, the tool itself is neutral. It just sits there waiting to be used. How we used it does not define it as good or evil, it defines us.
Therefore, if we wish to worship God, live our lives according to His Holy Torah, and fulfill our purposes in the world as much as possible, we do no benefit to ourselves to isolate ourselves from the tools He has given us. Modernity is not a curse ora stumbling block. It is an opportunity for us to rise even higher in our worship of God. Are there opportunities for sin? Unfortunately there are, but the choice remains with us. By choosing correctly, we purify our intellects and let the light of the Menorah shine through them. But by choosing incorrectly, we prostate ourselves before the Golden Calf. And this is why every punishment we suffer through has a bit of the punishment of the Gold Calf in it. Every time we use the tools God has given us incorrectly, we show we have not yet learned the first lesson given in this parashah. Thus we are once again reminded through our correction.
Let us therefore choose to embrace the tools of the modern world in ways which God would want us to, to increase our holiness and our understanding of His Torah, without succumbing to the temptations their materialistic natures offer.