Ki Tisa - weekly Torah portion

Moses goes up the mountain and does not return for many days. The people are restless, the leader is missing and gossip, I am sure, floods the camp. Oddly, though the gold was supposedly generously donated for the building of the tabernacle, enough of it was left with the Israelites to allow them to provide gold following Aron’s call, and “all the people tore off the gold rings which were in their ears and brought them to Aaron.” Aaron may have well been surprised by all that gold being provided to him, but nevertheless he takes that gold “and fashioned it with a graving tool and made it into a molten calf”. The People are certainly excited about this piece of art and they said “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” Aaron soon follows saying, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” All this commotion gets somehow all the way up the mountain to Moses who rushes downmountain with the two tablets in his hands, just to smash them to the earth when the shameful scene unfolds before his very own eyes.

Once Moses calms down, at least a little, he tries to understand how all of this had happened. He asks Aaron, “What did this people do to you, that you have brought such great sin upon them?” Aaron tells a story which seems to follow what has happened, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn; you know the people yourself, that they are prone to evil. For they said to me, ‘Make a god for us who will go before us; for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ I said to them, ‘Whoever has any gold, let them tear it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.” Obviously he tried to distant himself from the deed as it is known that he and his brother were having to deal with a tough group of people, something Moses has known and experienced more than once. How could he ever imagine that they would still have enough gold for something like this to happen, the gold that should have long been with the Bezalel and the workers on the tabernacle. And the calf, forget about that, this calf just somehow miraculously emerged from the fire. Therefore it is written, “Moses saw that the people were out of control—for Aaron had let them get out of control to be a derision among their enemies.” In other words, Moses profoundly understands that Aaron failed in being the leader he should have been and rather than lead he was led.

Leadership is a complex business It is therefore no wonder that many leader, for example Ariel Sharon Z’l, that when reaching true positions of leadership exclaimed that what you see from here you cannot have seen from where they previously where. I find it an interesting saying as most of us find ourselves many times in some sort of leadership positions and should be familiar with this phenomenon. It can be when we lead a class committee, a tribe in our youth movement, at work, at the military service or even within our family. When filling a leader’s position we need to and are expected to see more clearly, to see those things that the people we are supposed to lead may not be able to see. Aaron failed as he was unable to see or comprehend the consequence of the creation of the molten calf, he failed to realize that the repercussions will go beyond the return of Moses from the mountain. He failed to realize that having the calf and Moses arriving a week later could have entailed even more disaster. Aaron succumbed to the pressure of a minority of the camp, those in the fringes, who think they know everything but in fact demoralize, and break the common bond of joint beliefs and destiny, and finally the tail wags to body.

It is easy to explain how fears and intimidation can adversely motivate people. In such situations people think of two options – fight or flight. Actually there is another option. Joshua, who was with Moses at the mountain and says to Moses, “There is a sound of war in the camp.” Moses as a leader that can see beyond the noise responds, “It is not the sound of the cry of triumph, Nor is it the sound of the cry of defeat; But the sound of suffering I hear.” He does not hear the battle noises but rather he hears a deep and profound suffering of the soul, a noise that neither Joshua nor the people can really hear. It is then, with this understanding, that “he threw the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.” That inner change the Moses tried to achieve with the People of Israel has not yet happened. It was too early to get these sacred tablets of the Lord to this People. The People did not choose to fight, nor did they make the choice of flight, rather, they decided to stay put at the comfort zone of what they already know, which was not really good, but from which they had no idea how to escape from.

It is there were Moses is resentful of Aaron’s actions. As a leader Aaron had the opportunity to do the right thing but was unable to show the right direction. Making the wrong choices, being dragged by extremists in the fringes of the camp shattered its core. It is damage that will be difficult to heal and will continue to haunt both leaders and the people being led, long after the golden calf has been “ground to powder” and scattered “over the surface of the water”. The leader at the helm was afraid to take responsibility, fearful of identifying the course, and instead was dragged to a direction where he would not pay the price of the damage as so often happens with leaders, as we learn, “the Lord smote the people, because of what they did with the calf which Aaron had made.” The deed was made by the leader, the price was paid by those whom he was supposed to lead. It may seem to some that the details are from the far past of our People, in fact, it is just as if they were written just a mere day or two ago.

Shabbat Shalom.

Reuven Marko, 22 February 2019, 18 Adar Aleph, 5779

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