By Rabbi Alan Iser
Parshat Ki Tisa
In this week’s Torah portion, we encounter two very different leadership styles in the ways Moses and Aaron deal with the crisis of the Golden Calf.
The people grow restless when Moses is slow to return from Mount Sinai. Indeed, they seem to fear that Moses will not return at all.
From a straightforward reading of the text, it looks like Aaron collaborates with the people in constructing the Golden Calf and worshipping it. Not only are the people engaging in idolatry, but according to some commentators, they get drunk and engage in sexually inappropriate behavior. (The Hebrew used here, l’tzachek, elsewhere in the Torah has sexual connotations.) The people are totally out of control.
The rabbis in their midrashic commentaries go out of their way to exculpate Aaron by claiming Aaron was just engaging in delaying tactics, stalling the people by collecting gold and saying the next day would be a holiday for God, hoping that Moses would return in the meantime. There is even a midrash which has Aaron fearing for his life because he has just seen his nephew, Hur, killed by the angry mob when he refused to help them make the Golden Calf.
Despite these rabbinic midrashim, the Torah itself seems to render a guilty verdict on Aaron’s behavior. In Deuteronomy 9:20, Moses reports that God was angry enough at the time of the Golden Calf that God would have destroyed Aaron were it not for Moses’ intervention.
How are we to understand Aaron’s behavior?
Aaron grew up as a slave so he understood this recently liberated people’s mentality. He empathized with their vulnerabilities and insecurities. He reacted emotionally to the trauma they were experiencing when Moses did not return by the appointed time. Furthermore, Aaron, by nature, was one who made accommodations and, according to rabbinic tradition, was a born peacemaker who hated conflict.
Moses, by contrast, was reared in Pharaoh’s palace, and not as intimately familiar with the Israelites’ emotional make-up. Moreover, he is more cerebral than the emotional Aaron and more of an idealist, and perhaps even an absolutist in his outlook on the world.
When receiving news of the Israelites’ acts, Moses first reacts by interceding with God who wants to destroy the entire nation. He cogently appeals to the covenant God made with the patriarchs, and God relents.
True, Moses reacts with anger when he breaks the tablets of the Ten Commandments when he sees the people boisterously worshipping the Golden Calf. However, the rabbis see this as Moses cleverly destroying the evidence that the Israelites are bound by the Ten Commandments not to worship other deities. He then punishes not the entire people, but just the main participants.
According to the medieval commentator Nachmanides, Moses understood that there were too many perpetrators to try them all in court, but he still needed to put an end to the Israelites’ destructive behavior. He then goes back up the mountain to again intercede with God on behalf of the people so God does not abandon them.
Moses’ battlefield justice may seem harsh, but at the same time he is able to sustain his role as an advocate for his people. Moses is able to grasp the big picture and discern that the whole enterprise and future of the Jewish people is at stake here and not totally give in to the emotions of the moment. He is able to deliver stern justice but also show compassion for his people.
The question for us today in the Jewish community and American society is what kind of leaders do we need: an Aaron, with his accomodationist love of the people, or a Moses, who puts more emphasis on ideals than on an emotional connection to the people. Is it possible to find leaders who combine the virtues of both?
Rabbi Alan Iser is an adjunct professor of theology at Saint Joseph’s University, Villanova University and Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.