In an article for Ki Tissa 5774, Rabbi Cherki views the gap between Moses and the people of Israel as a common feature when a great spiritual event occurs.
Why was Moses slow in returning to the people? There is of course an element of typography involved, in that it takes time to climb down a mountain, but then why didn't Moses receive the Two Tablets at the foot of the mountain, so that they would be available immediately, without any delay?
The answer to this is that there is a par between the ideal and reality, and this is expressed in the physical distance between the mountain peak and the land below. Moses is not given the Tablets down below because he is at a higher spiritual level than the nation. The difference between the ideal and reality creates a situation where a powerful light is trying to enter into a vessel that is not able to receive it. This can be compared to an example of the Kabbalic concept of "shattering the vessels."
Similarly, when the year 5600 (1840) approached, there was a great tumult in Jerusalem, since it was written in the Zohar that the wellsprings of wisdom would open up in the world in that year and the nation of Israel would be redeemed. But since with their limited vision the people did not see that this was in fact happening, some of them lost their faith in the redemption and left the Jewish people. With the hindsight of our historical vision today, it is clear to us that the redemption did indeed begin then, as was predicted.
This is a pattern that is often repeated. When something important begins, the desire is to complete it immediately, and any delays lead to despair. The result is that a negative reaction to the process appears – in this case the sin of the Golden Calf.
According to the sages, quoted in the Talmud Yerushalmi, the sin of the Golden Calf happened at the exact same moment that Moses received the Tablets. G-d tried to take the Tablets back, but Moses was stronger and held on to them. The reason that he succeeded is that by its very essence the Torah must be given to the nation of Israel. The Torah is the spoken word of G-d to Israel. Speech is meaningless if nobody hears it. And therefore Moses was able to hold on to the Tablets. If they had been taken away from the people, they would no longer have had any meaning.
This means that the main lesson to be learned from the Golden Calf is that it is impossible to revoke the choice of the nation of Israel as the ones who received the Torah, even if they commit grave sins.
The Maharal explains why the sin took place precisely when the Ten Commandments were received, indicating an internal struggle between the "separate" ("hanivdal") and nature. Nature demands unity, while the separate demands exceptional behavior. That characterizes the struggle between unity and the separate. The unified approach cannot tolerate anything that is exceptional and out of the ordinary. The encounter between Moses and G-d and the giving of the Torah is an exceptional event from whatever angle it is seen, and nature rises up to struggle against it as strongly as it can.
Before the sin takes place, G-d declares to Moses that an angel will guide the nation of Israel. Rashi explains that G-d is telling Moses in advance that the people would sin, and that G-d would send an angel instead of leading them directly. This implies that the sin of Golden Calf was part of the original plan of giving the Torah. Whenever such a high spiritual level is achieved it can be expected that it will immediately be followed by a serious failure.
Moses was delayed in his descent because the ideal state in which he existed could not fully correspond to the level of the nation at that time. Time was needed to close the gap between them. However, his delay and the sin of the Calf demonstrated that G-d's choice of Israel was not a human decision which might be reversed but rather an act of G-d which transformed the nation into the Chosen People, a Divine creation that will never change, for all eternity.
Source: "AS SHABBAT APPROACHES" – a biweekly column in Shabbat B'Shabbato, Ki Tissa 5774, Volume 1512. (Zomet Institute) See: www.zomet.org.il/eng