Moses was on top of Mount Sinai, experiencing Divine revelation on a level beyond the grasp of ordinary prophets.
At the foot of the mountain, however, the people began to worry. Not knowing why Moses was taking so long, not understanding how he could live without food and water for forty days, they felt abandoned and leaderless. They demanded that Aaron make them a golden calf, and they worshipped it.
God’s response was immediate — He banished Moses from Mount Sinai:
לֶךְ־רֵד כִּי שִׁחֵת עַמְּךָ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלֵיתָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
“Leave! Go down! The people whom you brought out of Egypt have become corrupt.” (Exodus 32:7)
It seems unfair. The people sin, and Moses is kicked off the mountain?
In order for a leader to succeed, he must be appreciated and valued by his followers. The leader may possess a soul greatly elevated above the people, but it is crucial that the people should be able to relate to and learn from their leader.
At Mount Sinai, the Jewish people were on a lofty spiritual level. As a result, Moses was able to attain a supreme level of prophecy and revelation on top of the mountain. But after they sinned with the golden calf, Moses would no longer be a suitable leader were he to retain his spiritual attainments. It was necessary for Moses to “step down,” to lower himself, in order to continue serving as their guide and leader.
This idea is clearly expressed by the Talmud in Berachot 32a:
“What does it mean, ‘Go down’? God told Moses, ‘Go down from your greatness. I only gave you pre-eminence for the sake of the Jewish people. Now they have sinned — why should you be elevated?’
Immediately, Moses’ [spiritual] strength left him.”
(Gold from the Land of Israel, pp. 160-161. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, pp. 142-143.)