The People of Israel made the calf because they wanted a physical dwelling place for the Divine Presence, some relatable, tangible object on which holiness could rest.
In lieu of a Tabernacle, an Ark, and cherubim, they took a calf and designated it the dwelling place for God’s glory.
In this respect, the basic idea of the calf was not without merit; it was simply an inappropriate application of a legitimate desire.
Our need for tangibility is innate, as it is very difficult to focus on God in the abstract.
To be devoted exclusively to God on the most abstract level is very difficult, and not everyone is capable of this task; it may not even be possible for anyone to do completely.
This is because life is full of questions.
There are big questions – whom do we serve; in whom do we believe? – and small questions – how should we live; how will we die?
And how do we, as individuals or as a community, handle all sorts of potentially fateful decisions?
To be sure, the rule in all these matters is to “follow none but God” (Deut. 13:5).
But today, when we are not on the level of, “You will hear a command from behind you, saying: ‘This is the way; follow it, whether you turn to the right or to the left’” (is. 30:21), this becomes problematic.
If God would tell each and every one of us specifically what is expected of him, everything would be simple.
But we do not hear this voice, neither from behind us nor in front of us. All that we receive is very general instruction; as a result, people are always searching for something to hold on to.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz