Question: At Mt Sinai what happened to those who built the Golden Calf. I understand they were all destroyed when the earth opened up. Are their souls also now in the earth? Was that the punishment for not believing in G-d after they seen all those miracles? Is that what happens to all who do not believe in G-d that their souls are destroyed or was that a special case?.
Answer: Thank you for the great question. The Jews at Mount Sinai were killed because they were standing against everything that G-d and Moses stood for. They represented opposition. Not all the Jews were killed. As a matter of fact, most were not.
In terms of the question about their souls, when anybody dies the soul eventually departs from the body and goes to it’s Maker. There is a judgment passed on the soul as to what amount of purification it needs before it can become pure again. Every soul in this world is unique, as is every individual. There is no catagory that we can put everybody who has a certain belief into. However, there is definitely an idea of reward and punishment. This is a very detailed and interesting topic that I recomend you seek further knowledge about. Try to seek out a partner to learn Derech Hashem, The Way of G-d with you. This is a book by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato. It goes through many of these issues and would give you a great base of knowledge.
In order to properly answer your question, I need to state that the Cecille B. DeMille version of the giving of the law is completely wrong according to the Torah. There were 3 catagories of people who sinned at the golden calf.
1.)The people who were warned not to worship the idol, then did it anyway – they were guilty and deserved the death penalty by the sword according to Torah law.
2.)People who worshiped the idol with witnesses, but were not warned beforehand. They were not liable for the death penalty by humans, but were killed by plague.
3.)The last group is compared to an adulterous wife. The test for a woman who is accused of being an aldulterer is that she is given a special drink to test if she is telling the truth. If she is, she is fine. If she is not, then she dies a painful death. Moses did the same thing. The people drank this drink (water & ashes from the golden calf). If they were not telling the truth & they did in fact sin, then they died. The first group was killed by the Levites.
They were commanded to kill all of the people in the first group by the sword. As you can see the movie version has no historical truth. Therefore, since their souls were never in the earth, so the question is mute. Also, even if they would have been swallowed up – a person’s soul is not a physical being that can be trapped in a physical place. Regardless of what the spiritual status of a person’s soul is it does not stay in or on the earth after they are buried.
You now see what the punishment was for them when they did not believe in G-d. However, the Torah punishes idol worship with death, not just for having no belief. That is not a crime that gets the death penalty. A Jew should believe based on knowledge, but not everyone today has the knowledge on which to base a strong belief.
Lastly, their souls were not destroyed. They were dealt with individually in the way that they needed to be. Sometimes death can atone for sins, other times it cannot. They were unique in that they saw miracles that we do not see, but we see other miracles all the time.
I hope that this is helpful to you.
Rabbi Gershon Litt