The Torah in Parashat Ki-Tisa tells of the tragic incident of the golden calf – the graven image which Benei Yisrael worshipped at Mount Sinai after concluding that Moshe, who had climbed to the mountaintop to receive the Torah from God, would not be returning. We read that the morning after the golden calf was fashioned, the people “woke early…ate and drank,” and then proceeded “le-tzacheik” (32:6). This term – which stems from the root tz.ch.k., “laugh” – is generally understood as a reference to merrymaking, and thus, as the Ramban writes, this verse thus tells of the people’s revelry and gaiety as they celebrated their new deity. The Midrash Tanchuma, cited by Rashi, adds that the verb tz.ch.k. can also refer to promiscuity and murder, and the Torah thus indicates that the people were guilty of more than just frivolous merriment – they engaged in forbidden relationships, and they killed Chur, Moshe’s nephew, who opposed the idea to make a golden calf.
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch adds that “le-tzacheik” implies a scornful rejection of religious principles. It denotes a cynical attitude, or, in Rav Hirsch’s words, “a feeling of superiority over something important, great, high, noble.” Rav Hirsch explains that the service of God requires one to “submit himself and give himself up to the dictates of His holy laws of morality,” to “something which is higher than Man, something high, great…” By contrast, those who create their own gods seek to free themselves of restraint and submission, by deciding that their “god” wants them to do precisely what it is that they wish to do. Thus, Rav Hirsch explains the phrase “le-tzacheik” in the context of the golden calf as referring to “deliberate debauchery to demonstrate the freedom from moral chains, a mockery of the laws of morality by a canonization of immorality.” The people’s worship of the golden calf was accompanied by a feeling of contempt for the lofty ideals, and the rules, obligations and responsibilities, which they had previously accepted upon themselves.
A creative explanation of “le-tzacheik” is suggested by Rav Tzvi Hersh Farber, in his Kerem Ha-tzevi. He proposes that there were those among the nation who argued against the idea to make a golden calf, and warned the rest of the people that if they abandoned God, He would no longer sustain them with the miraculous manna. Rav Farber writes that this might have been the reason why Aharon, after fashioning the golden calf, told the people that they should celebrate the following day (“chag le-Hashem machar” – 32:5). He expected God to withhold the manna in response to the people’s betrayal, and that when the people saw the next morning that their daily food ration did not arrive, they would immediately regret this decision. However, the next morning, the people saw that the manna did, in fact, descend from the heavens, just as it did every other morning. God continued feeding and caring for Benei Yisrael despite their having betrayed Him, and so He sent the manna as usual that morning, after the people created a graven image which they then called their god. Rav Farber suggests that this is the meaning of the verse, “The nation sat to eat and drink, and they arose le-tzacheik.” As they sat down to eat just as they ate every other morning, they cynically ridiculed Aharon and the others who warned that their food rations would be denied if they betrayed the Almighty.