About thirty years ago, Rav Soloveitchik זצ"ל gave a shiur in which he highlighted five key aspects of this week's Parsha (available here), of which I'd like to discuss the first.
The Rav contrasted the sin of Adam and Eve with that of the Golden Calf. The two, he observed, were diametrically opposed. Adam and Eve were guilty of the sin of arrogance. They were aware of the fact that they were the pinnnacle of creation, that they had been created in the veritable image of God. Hence, they succumbed to the temptation of going one step farther, to become the equals of God. As the serpent put it (Gen. 3, 4-5): And the serpent said to the woman: 'You shall not surely die; for God knows that on the day you eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as God, knowing good and evil.' Unadulterated, self-centered pride led to man's undoing.
The sin of the Golden Calf, the Rav said, was a result not of arrogance but of extreme self-negation.
The Torah relates (Ex. 32, 1): And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mount, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron, and said to him: 'Up, make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what has become of him.' The people were profoundly insecure. Moses' delay in returning led them to panic and seek a tangible replacement for Moses, who would mediate between them and God. Their total sense of self-negation, their lack of backbone led them to hand their souls over to an idol. " ע"כ דברי הרב בקיצור נמרץ.
As I was thinking about this, it hit me that both extremes result in idolatry.
In the first case, unbounded narcissism, rendered more egregious by intellectual arrogance, leads to self-worship. Arrogant man worships himself, makes his god in his own image and dares to dictate to God. In the Orthodox world, this translates into those who would sit in judgement upon the Torah, because it doesn't fit the curremt fashion in Western 'thinking.'
In the second case, it is not arrogance but irrational despair that is man's undoing. Total lack of faith in one's God-given strengths leads man to hand over his freedom, his reason, and his soul to powers that he deems greater than he. These may be human or (in his mind supernatural). If they turn to anyone other than God Himself, they are no less idolatrous. Blind reliance upon men or things, upon leaders or amulets, are nothing less than עבודה זרה.
The Rav concluded that man is duty bound, by God commanded, to cultivate both a strong sense of his greatness and of his mortality and limitations. He must be proud and humble. He must live his life on a dialectic between the two extremes, never embracing either. Avoiding the extremes, while embracing the complex contradictions in human nature, is the only way of avoiding disaster.