Calves, Crisis, and Communal Leadership

Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11−34:35

D'Var Torah By: Peter Schaktman

Focal Point

  • As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made and burned it; he ground it to powder and strewed it upon the water and so made the Israelites drink it.

  • Moses said to Aaron, "What did this people do to you that you have brought such great sin upon them?" Aaron said, "Let not my lord be enraged. You know that this people is bent on evil. They said to me, 'Make us a god to lead us; for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt―-we cannot tell what has happened to him.' So I said to them, 'Whoever has gold, take it off!' They gave it to me, and I hurled it into the fire and out came this calf!" (Exodus 32:19-24)

  • The next day Moses said to the people, "You have been guilty of a great sin. Yet I will now go up to Adonai; perhaps I may win forgiveness for your sin." Moses went back to Adonai and said, "Alas, this people is guilty of a great sin in making for themselves a god of gold. Now, if You will forgive their sin [well and good]; but if not, erase me from the record that You have written!" (Exodus 32:30-32)

D'var Torah

When Moses fails to return at the expected time from his encounter with God on the mountain, his absence leads to the first major crisis since the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds, a crisis that will change the people forever. The desert uprising that culminates in the creation of the Golden Calf is also a test of leadership and of two leaders in particular―Moses and Aaron. Their respective responses to the matter at hand are instructive not only in the context of a people wandering through the wilderness but also to anyone who leads―or participates in―a religious community.

Inherent in any crisis of leadership are choices that have to be made. Rarely is the "right" choice self-evident. Embedded in every alternative are the values that inform it. What leadership choices were made by Aaron and Moses, and what values can be discerned in their respective responses to the throng they encountered?

First to confront the mob was Aaron, from whom the people demanded a tangible symbol to replace the missing Moses. The text of the Torah paints Aaron as acquiescent, cooperative, and unquestioning of their demands. In this episode, Aaron as leader is responsive to the desires of the assembled Israelites but in a way that fails to help the people move spiritually to where they need to be. His response, elicited by fear, is tragically ineffective in the end. Leadership decisions based on fear usually are.

For Moses, on the other hand, the crisis presented by the Golden Calf creates an opportunity for transformation, first of the leader and ultimately of the led. Up to this point of the narrative, Moses has been remarkably passive, doing God's bidding but taking little initiative of his own. No longer the man to whom God has to say, "Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward" (Exodus 14:15), Moses now takes decisive action and in so doing owns his sacred responsibility. He shatters the tablets, literally breaking the covenant before the Israelites can be held fully accountable for its provisions. Unlike Aaron, who refers to the Israelites as a "they" who are inclined to evil, Moses reiterates his and God's identification with the people, appropriately excoriating them but ultimately persuading Adonai to restore and maintain their status as God's covenantal partners.

To remain cognizant of covenantal values even in the midst of a crisis is perhaps the most significant challenge facing all Jewish communal leaders in every generation. In extenuating Aaron's actions, the Rabbis emphasize this. They imagine that after Aaron was given the gold rings collected by the men, he turned his face heavenward and said: "'To You, enthroned in heaven, I turn my eyes.' You know all thoughts: It is against my will that I am about to do this" (Tanchuma, Ki Tisa 19). In their attempt to restore Aaron's reputation, the Rabbis thus create a scenario whereby his acceding to the popular will was necessary and seemingly the only alternative, something that is rarely the case in reality. Nevertheless, they emphasize Aaron's efforts in the midst of this confrontation to remain connected to his core values and, in this case, to the source of those values, God.

Moses demonstrates the same commitment in an even more palpable way later in the narrative when he sets as a condition of his continued leadership his being granted the opportunity to "know [God's] ways" (Exodus 33:13) and to "behold [God's] Presence" (Exodus 33:18).

Like Moses and Aaron, those of us who take part in Jewish communal life today deeply desire to experience God's essence, to see God or manifestations of God in all that we do. And like the Israelites in the wilderness, we sometimes express this desire in misguided ways. "When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron, vayikahel ha-am al-Aharon" (Exodus 32:1). Although Nahum Sarna points out that the preposition al used here suggests that the people's act had a menacing quality, it is perhaps the verb vayikahel that is more significant. This is the first time that this verb is applied to the people, the first time the group that left Egypt is described as having gathered as a kahal, "community," rather than a chorus of malcontents. They are frightened, filled with anxiety and dread, and maybe even bent on evil, but they are a community. And it is in this context of community―and perhaps only in this context―that sacred relationships, as well as golden calves, can be forged. The challenge faced by our leaders today is to embody the sacred in all that they do so that our communities can participate with them in sacred relationships and turn away from golden calves.

By the Way

  • Rabbi Abba bar Acha said: It is impossible to understand the nature of this people. When they are asked to contribute to the Golden Calf, they give, and when they are asked to contribute to the building of the Tabernacle, they give. (Jerusalem Talmud, Sh'kalim 1:1)

  • What is damaging is Aaron's abdication of responsibility as a leader―accepting the probable as permanent without struggling against it. He excuses his own idolatrous behavior by using the passive voice, saying, "Out came this calf!"―untouched, apparently, by human hands. Aaron is (as Moses was [earlier]) the representative leader. He works with, not against, the tendencies of the people. Because he takes the people only where they would have gone anyway, Aaron wields no power. (Aaron Wildavsky,The Nursing Father: Moses as a Political Leader, Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 1984, p. 107)

  • "All ills that have befallen the people since that time are in part traceable to the Golden Calf and," said Rabbi Yudan in the name of Rabbi Assi, "there is no generation that does not receive a particle [of retribution] for the making of the Golden Calf." (Talmud, Sanhedrin 102a)

Your Guide

  1. What is the paradox that troubles Rabbi Abba bar Acha?

  2. Do you agree with Wildavsky that Aaron's action constitutes his "abdication of responsibility as a leader"? Can it be argued that Aaron's action demonstrates responsibility?

  3. What are the implications of Rabbi Yudan's statement that every generation receives "a particle [of retribution] for the making of the Golden Calf"?

At the time of this writing in 2003, Peter Schaktman was the director of the UAHC Department of Small and New Congregations.

Reference Materials

Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11–34:35 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 632–662; Revised Edition, pp. 581–606; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 495–520 

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