“Limitless Leadership”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tisah, we read of the fateful sin of the people of Israel with the Golden Calf. While the Torah states (Exodus 32:14) that G-d forgave the People of Israel for the sin of worshiping the Golden Calf, tradition maintains that the sin was not entirely forgiven. In fact, after the sin of the scouts (spies), it was G-d’s recollection of the sin of the Golden Calf that tipped the scale and resulted in the decree that the men of the generation of the Exodus would not be allowed to enter the land of Israel.

In Exodus 31:18, the bible states that G-d gave Moses two Tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of G-d to deliver to the People of Israel. However, when Moses delayed descending the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron and demanded of him (Exodus 32:1), “Koom ah’say lah’noo eh’loh’him ah’sher yayl’choo le’fah’nay’noo…” Get up and make for us a god that will go before us, for the man Moses who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we don’t know what has become of him!

Perhaps as a stall tactic, Aaron tells the people to remove the rings of gold that were in the ears of their wives, their sons and their daughters, and to bring them to him. Aaron collects the precious jewels from them, binds them in a cloth, ignites them, and the jewels turn into a molten calf. The People of Israel call out to the calf (Exodus 32:4), “Ayleh eh’lo’heh’chah Yisroel,” This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.

Again, perhaps stalling, Aaron builds an altar and announces plans for a festival tomorrow. The next day, the people rise up early, offer sacrifices to the calf, eat and become intoxicated. When Moses descends with the two Tablets from the mountain and sees and hears the people reveling before the calf, he throws the Tablets and shatters them at the foot of the mountain. He then takes the calf, burns it in fire, grinds the remains into fine powder, which he sprinkles into water, and makes the people drink the water. At Moses’s direction, the Levites then attack the leaders of this idolatrous action, killing about 3,000 men.

Moses begs G-d to forgive the people for the grievous sin that they had committed, and presents G-d with an ultimatum. (Exodus 32:32) “V’ah’tah im tee’sah chah’tah’tahm. Ve’im ah’yin, me’chay’nee nah mee’sif’reh’chah ah’sher kah’tav’tah,” and now, if You G-d will forgive their sin, [good]. But, if not, erase me now from Your book, that You have written! Rejecting Moses’s threat, the Al-mighty pronounces that only those who are sinful shall be erased. G-d then strikes the people with a plague and seems bent on destroying them. Moses once again pleads for G-d’s forgiveness. The Al-mighty then tells Moses to carve out two new stone Tablets like the first ones. At that point, the Al-mighty pronounces His “Thirteen Attributes of Mercy,” and grants forgiveness.

The Midrash relates that Moses was chosen to be the leader of Israel because G-d had watched Moses shepherd Jethro’s flocks in Midian. On a particular occasion, one of the sheep had separated from the flock to find water. After an arduous search, Moses finds the sheep at the water hole. Moses lifts up the tired and thirsty animal and says to the little lamb, “Had I known that you were thirsty, I would have brought the water to you.” Looking down from heaven, G-d says, “If this is the way Moses treats the animals, he is certainly qualified to be the shepherd of My people.

But the people of Israel are far different from gentle lambs. The freed slaves of Egypt are a people who had endured the tortures and beatings of their cruel taskmasters. They are a people who for decades had been exposed to the decadence of Egypt–orgies of blood and alcohol. They had been reduced to the 49th level of impurity, and had become a “stiff-necked” people.

The gentle former-shepherd Moses now confronts this hardened and frustrated people, who haven’t the slightest idea how to deal with freedom. They demand that their meals be served on time. They want their meat and their bread. They’re not much into prayer or theology, and poor Moses is put to the test again and again.

Worse perhaps, is that Moses is entirely alone. Even Aaron appears to have defected to the other side. And yet, in this period of intense existential loneliness, Moses somehow finds the strength to defend the people “who are bent on evil,” before G-d’s anger. Moses puts his own life on the line for Israel’s sake, and proves persuasive enough to convince even G-d.

The Zohar– the mystical interpretation of the bible, when comparing the merits of the various early Jewish leaders, notes that Noah did not intercede with G-d for his fellow humans when he was informed of their impending destruction. Abraham, however, repeatedly pleads on behalf of the wicked people of Sodom. But, says the Zohar, Moses exceeded even Abraham, for he refused to budge until G-d had pardoned Israel. There was none who equaled Moses in his people’s defense. He was indeed the faithful shepherd.

The Midrashic interpretations portray Moses’s defense of the Jewish people as even more self-effacing. Stating that Moses did not shatter the Tablets entirely out of anger and frustration, the Midrash suggests that Moses really had a hidden agenda. When Moses breaks the Tablets, the Midrash quotes him as saying to the Al-mighty, “They sinned, and I sinned–after all, I broke the Tablets! If You forgive them, forgive me too. If You do not forgive them, do not forgive me, but rather erase me from the book that You have written.”

Despite all his heroic accomplishments–including the Exodus from Egypt and the splitting of the Red Sea, Moses’s life had been most difficult. From the moment that he first intervened on behalf of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, the Israelites scorned and berated him, claiming that his intervention had only made life worse for them. Moses’s preoccupation with the Jewish people was total, almost to the point of breaking, and his lonely personal life is stark evidence of his total commitment to the People. Yet Moses always rises to the occasion, and convinces G-d to forgive His people. The life of Moses is simply a paradigm of total selflessness.

While the Jewish people have been blessed with many extraordinary leaders over the centuries and millennia, no one has risen to the heights of Moses. This exceptional servant of the Al-mighty has been the extraordinary servant of the Jewish people. It is his leadership and his love that still resonate with his people more than 3,300 years after his death, and encourage them to remain hopeful in the face of their many adversities and challenges.

May you be blessed.