IIRC, in the story of the Golden Calf, people not only actually MADE the idol but worshipped it, while in the story of Meraglim people only BELIEVED in what the Spies said.

Nevertheless, after the G"C, there was a long negotiation with Moses, people were pardoned and G-d allowed them to build the Mishkan to repent, while after the Spies, the whole generation was sentenced to death.

How this difference can be explained?

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    The people for the most part didn’t worship the Eigel. Acc. to Rashi it was just the Erev Rav; he makes this point several times in Ki Sisa.
    – DonielF
    Aug 1 '19 at 15:56
  • @DanF You remember correctly - it discusses Lashon Hara in 9:2-3. It doesn’t make the point explicitly that Lashon Hara is worse than idolatry; that’s made in Arachin 15b, that Lashon Hara is equivalent to the Big Three combined.
    – DonielF
    Aug 1 '19 at 16:01
  • Note that the meraglim was a sin for literally no benefit, and unlike the egel (seen as an intermediary initially) involved direct denial of Hashems capabilities. It also meant accusing hashem of planning evil to the yidden. All in all, pretty awful
    – user15253
    Aug 1 '19 at 20:01