Exodus, Chapter 32 begins with these words: “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain . . . ” (Exodus 32:1). It’s a strange turn of phrase. What was it that they saw?
In order to understand that question, we need to think about what they were used to seeing. Since Moses had arrived in Egypt, there had been signs of God’s Presence all around. From the marvels that Moses performed before Pharaoh to the ten plagues, the parting of the sea, the manna, the water, and finally, God’s personal revelation, signs of God’s Presence had been a regular feature of Israelite life.
Now, with Moses having gone from sight, what was there for them to see? They were left only with each other. And thus their sight turns to fear. The Hebrew word vayar ha-am means “and the people saw,” but we can also read vayeira ha-am, “and the people feared.” They feared that since he had not returned he must be dead, for there was nothing for them actually to see. They feared they were truly alone in the wilderness, with no leader and no God to guide them.
What is it the people want? The commentator Rashbam1 says that the people actually wanted many gods, noting that the word elohim is plural. But Nachmanides says this makes no sense. He writes, “Obviously, the Israelites did not think that Moses was G-d.” After all, they describe him clearly as a man—“ ‘for that man Moses,’ ” and not “that god Moses” (Exodus 32:1). “So why,” Nachmanides continues, “would it make sense, he argues, for them to say, ‘Moses is gone, let’s make a g-d?’ ” Rather, Nachmanides contends that what the people really wanted was a replacement for the divine leadership that Moses had offered: “What they meant was . . . ‘let us make a new Moses who will guide us at God’s command.’ ”2
Thus in looking for a new Moses, they look to his brother, Aaron, to fill that void. But what does it take to be that kind of leader? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once offered the following thought on prophetic leadership: “It’s a kind of men who combine very deep love and very powerful dissent, painful rebuke, with unwavering hope.”3
But Aaron is not a new Moses. Aaron cannot overcome his own fear and loneliness. He accedes to their request, and fashions for them a Golden Calf. He is unable or unwilling to challenge the people who have gathered against him, unable to offer the powerful dissent or the painful rebuke that Heschel describes.
Moses, however, demonstrates a commitment to God and his mission that he is willing even to confront God’s own self. “Hurry down,” God says, “for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely” (Exodus 32:7). It’s as if God has relinquished claim to the Israelites—as Rashi notes, it is no longer “the people” but “your people.” The commentator Abarbanel says that God waited to see if Moses would respond, but Moses was too ashamed to answer, so God continued. “Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation” (Exodus 32:10).4
But Moses will not let God be. Moses implores God, confronting God face-to-face, reminding God that the Israelites are indeed God’s people, not Moses’s people, and that God’s promise to build up the Children of Israel was made with Abraham, Isaac, and Israel himself. God relents, and Moses descends. He smashes the two tablets of the Ten Commandments; he takes their god and melts it down, grinds it to powder, strews it upon the water, and makes them drink it.
How is it possible that Moses can confront the people where Aaron felt incapable? Think of how much time it must have taken for Moses to take the Golden Calf, melt it into a lump, and then grind it into powder. How is Moses able to subdue the people to such an extent that he could despoil their drinking water with the golden powder? Moses’s power comes from the strength of his belief; his capacity to rebuke literally comes from the courage of his convictions.
Ultimately, what the people want is a leader in whom they can put their faith, whose convictions they can plainly see. The wilderness is a scary place, and the people need to feel secure in their leader. They need a visible sign that God is with them, and more than any physical miracle, what they really need to see is a leader who really believes in the mission. When they couldn’t see that leader, their lack of vision turned their faith into fear.
A lack of vision can lead to fear for anyone. When Moses returns to Mount Sinai, he demands of God that there be signs that it is truly God who is leading the people, for even Moses fears being alone in the wilderness. Then Moses asks to have perfect vision, not simply to know God’s ways, but to actually see God’s Presence. God replies to Moses as God has always replied to humanity: “ ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you’ ” (Exodus 33:19).
Members of humanity become God’s servants by seeing the signs of God’s Presence all around. But one becomes a leader when, by virtue of having the courage of one’s convictions, one’s very being becomes the sign of God’s Presence to others.
1. The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: JPS, 1991) pp. 203, 261
2. Michael Carasik, ed. and trans., EXODUS in the JPS Commentators Bible (Philadelphia: JPS, 2005), p. 280
3. “The Spiritual Audacity of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel,” quoted by Krista Tippett, host: Speaking of Faith (NPR Radio, June 5, 2008)
4. Michael Carasik, ed. and trans., EXODUS in the JPS Commentators Bible (Philadelphia: JPS, 2005), p. 280
Rabbi Dan Levin is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth El of Boca Raton, Florida.
In Ki Tisa, the Israelites find themselves without a leader, or at least, a leader they can see or sense. They lose faith in Moses and seek a new leader in Aaron, who as Rabbi Levin points out, “is not a new Moses”: he is not quite up to the task. For the Israelites, Moses signified the Presence of God. Without him, God—their Rock, their Redeemer— had disappeared.
It is important to have faith in one’s leaders. Lack of such faith can demoralize any country, synagogue, or Fortune 500 company. Confidence leads to security, something that was desperately needed by the exiles from Egyptian slavery. And as Rabbi Levin rightly points out, “what the people want is a leader in whom they can put their faith, whose convictions they can plainly see.” We rely on leaders to provide vision, a direction for our journey and purpose.
But what about the need to have faith in ourselves?
The Israelites didn’t just lose faith in Moses; they also lost faith in themselves. When Moses was long in coming down the mountain, they didn’t have the capacity to look into each other’s faces and find strength in each other. Luckily, Moses returned before things got too chaotic. But what would have happened if Moses hadn’t returned? Would they have been able to rely on each other and develop a system to determine vision and next steps? Moses had already appointed chiefs over the people, in Parashat Yitro, to help with judgments over the people. Where were these capable men? Had their faith in Moses caused them to leave all reason behind?
Sometimes, when we put too much trust in our leaders, we lose sight of our own wisdom and vision. Lasting faith and vision—the kind that can lead us to the Promised Land—can only develop out of a shared understanding between leaders and the people. We should have a little more faith in ourselves.
Rabbi Esther L. Lederman is the assistant rabbi at Temple Micah in Washington, D.C.
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
Haftarah, I Kings 18:1-39
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 722-725; Revised Edition, pp. 607-610