The episode of the Golden Calf represents one of the most tragic episodes in the history of the Children of Israel. A mere 40-days prior, the Jews stood at the very same Mount Sinai, after the miraculous redemption from Egypt, and heard God, their Savior, declare an absolute severe prohibition against any forms of idolatry. How could the people who heard and experienced Revelation create, or minimally, rally around the creation of an alternative leader? Furthermore, how could they ever recover from such a misstep?

The text of the story in parashat Ki Tisa states, (Exodus 32:19), “And it came to pass, as soon as he [Moses] came near to the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing; and Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands, and broke them beneath the mount.” How could Moses break the most precious physical objects ever created? After all, God personally fashioned the tablets, as the Torah describes (Exodus 32:16).

The sages offer many answers. Some suggest when the Jews worshipped the golden calf, the miraculous tablets lost their power. As such, Moses discarded them as useless, or, according to another version, was unable to lift them anymore, as the supernatural component that allowed him to hold them disappeared with the sin. Still others argue that Moses cast them down due to anger and disappointment over the Jews’ errant behavior. One opinion in the Midrash proposes that Moses shattered the tablets as a betrothed man would sever the marriage contract in light of infidelity of their betrothed, as the consequences for adultery are much more severe. Moses too shattered the tablets, which symbolized the binding covenant with God.

One Midrash, however (Shmot Rabbah 46:1) uses the breaking of the tablets to highlight Moshe’s role as leader. “Upon seeing the iniquity of the golden calf, Moses realized that the Children of Israel could not withstand the sin. Wanting to include himself with them, he broke the tablets. Moses said to the Almighty, ‘They sinned and I sinned as well when I broke Your tablets. If You forgive them, you can also forgive me. If you will not forgive their sin, do not forgive mine. You can ‘erase my name from Your Book’ (Exodus 32:32).”

We can all learn an incredible lesson of leadership from Moses. He sought not glory for himself; he saw his job primarily as representing and defending his people.

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