TEST OF LEADERSHIP
A Jewish leader, as symbol and representative of the Jewish people, is held to a higher standard of conduct than a Jew lacking the prerogatives and responsibilities of authority. The Hebrew Bible provides us with this standard of conduct, not only through those examples of conduct which are praiseworthy but, as well, through those examples of conduct which are blameworthy.
The incident of the golden calf is one lens through which we may discern the
true responsibilities of Jewish leadership (see Ex. 32:1-35). God had earlier
instructed Moses to ascend Mount Sinai in order to receive the stone tablets
upon which He had written the Ten Commandments; and Moses now remained there
for 40 days and nights (see Ex. 24:12-18). In his absence, his brother Aaron
was left in charge of the people. As the Torah relates:
"Moses stood up with Joshua, his servant; and Moses ascended to the
Mountain of God. To the elders he [Moses] said, 'Wait for us here until
we return to you. Behold -- Aaron and Hur are with
you; whoever has a grievance should approach them." (Ex. 24:13-14).
However, as time passed, the people became impatient. As the Torah relates:
"The people saw that Moses had delayed in descending from the Mountain,
and the people gathered around Aaron, and they said to him, 'Rise up; make for
us elohim that will go before us; for,
this man Moses who brought us up from Egypt -- we do not know what has become
of him!' Aaron said to them, 'Remove the rings of gold that are in the ears of
your wives, sons and daughters, and bring them to me.' The entire people
removed the gold rings that were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He
[Aaron] took it [the gold] from their hands and bound it up in a cloth, and he
fashioned it into a molten calf; and they said, 'This is your elohim, O Israel, which brought you up from the land
of Egypt.' And Aaron perceived [the people’s idolatrous intentions towards the
molten calf], and he built an altar before Him; and Aaron called out and said,
'A festival for HaShem tomorrow!' They arose early
the next day and offered up elevation-offerings and brought peace-offerings;
and the people sat to eat and drink, and they got up to revel. HaShem spoke to Moses: 'Go, descend -- for your people that
you brought up from
The Jewish people of more than three millennia ago were not able to relate to an Omnipresent yet Incorporeal Deity. Consequently, God provided them with a flesh-and-blood leader -- Moses -- with whom they were able to interact on a daily basis -- until now. Moses, the political and prophetic leader of the Jewish people, and the direct liaison between God and them, had not yet returned from Mount Sinai; and Aaron, the spiritual leader of the Jewish people, was now surrounded by a frenzied mob demanding that Aaron “make for us elohim that will go before us”.
What did the people mean when they initially demanded and subsequently lauded the creation of the “elohim”? The Hebrew-language word “Elohim” is the first-revealed Name of God (see Gen. 1:1). However, depending on the context, “elohim” may also refer to and be translated as, inter alia, “gods” (e.g., Ex. 20:3), “judges” (e.g., Ex. 22:8) or “empiric rulers” (e.g., Deut. 10:17). Although, throughout Exodus 32:1-10, the word “elohim” is traditionally translated as “god(s)”, I believe that this translation is contextually incorrect. For, the Jewish people were neither so ignorant nor so illogical as to believe that Aaron, a mortal being, was actually capable of creating one or more Immortal Deities. Moreover, the people explained to Aaron that, in light of Moses’ failure to return to the encampment to resume leading them to their destination, the purpose of the “elohim” would be to act as a guide for the remainder of their journey to the Land of Israel. Consequently, I believe that the proper translation of “elohim” in this context is “talisman(s)” -- a tangible object imbued with supernatural powers -- so that the relevant portions of the text are properly translated as: “. . . and they said to him ‘Rise up; make for us talismans that will go before us; for, this man Moses who brought us up from Egypt -- we do not know what has become of him!' . . . and they said, ‘This is your talisman, O Israel, which brought you up from the Land of Egypt.’” That the Jewish people would believe in the power and efficacy of a talisman is not surprising. For, while they were still enslaved in Egypt, the people had become acquainted with Moses’ staff which was intended by God to provide them with a tangible Manifestation of His Power. As the Torah relates: “HaShem said to him [Moses], ‘What is that in your hand?’, and he [Moses] said, ‘A staff.’ And He said, ‘Cast it on the ground’, and he [Moses] cast it on the ground, and it became a snake; and Moses fled from it. And HaShem said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand and grasp its tail’; and he stretched out his hand and grasped it tightly, and it became a staff in his palm. [Then HaShem explained,] ‘On account of it, they [the people] will believe that unto you appeared HaShem, the God of their forefathers -- the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’” (Ex. 4:2-5). And, immediately upon their departure from Egypt, the people were guided in their journey by God’s Manifestation of Himself from within two talismans. As the Torah relates: “HaShem went before them by day in a Pillar of Cloud to lead them on the Way, and by night in a Pillar of Fire to give them light -- to travel day and night.” (Ex. 13:21).
Why did Aaron, the high priest of God, comply with people’s demand? The mob’s proximity and stridency caused Aaron to fear for his safety, as he was unsure whether God would protect him; so, in a moment of weakness, he appeased the people. Consequently, in order to comfort them on account of Moses’ extended absence, Aaron sculpted for them a golden calf to serve, not as an object of worship, but rather as a tangible representation and a substitute manifestation of God's Presence, which would be for them a remembrance of God’s Representative, Moses, until the latter’s return to the encampment. Yet, in so doing, he violated the Second Commandment which prohibited the creation by human beings of such objects (see Ex. 20:4), thereby creating an enormous Chillul HaShem (desecration of God’s Name). And, once the people, in a fit of sarcasm, declared that it was actually this talisman -- rather than Moses -- which had taken them out of Egypt, Aaron realized that the people would not be content to limit the talisman to its intended purpose, but would likely employ it for idolatrous purposes. That is precisely why, in an attempt to remind the people that only the God of Israel was a proper object of worship, he built an altar before God and declared "a festival for HaShem tomorrow" (Ex. 32:5). Unfortunately, in initially capitulating to the people’s demand for the manufacture of a talisman, Aaron had badly miscalculated his ability to contain and control the resulting debacle.
Proof of Aaron's wrongdoing comes from his own brother, Moses, who subsequently admonished him: "What did this people do to you that you brought a grievous Sin upon it?!" (Ex. 32:21). Please note, by means of Moses' careful language, that while he clearly acknowledged that the Jewish people must have applied unbearable pressure to Aaron -- nevertheless, it was not the people who had brought Sin upon Aaron, but, rather, Aaron who had brought Sin upon the people! This viewpoint is very strange, especially in light of the fact that it was the people who had demanded of Aaron that he create a talisman for them, and not Aaron who had suggested this plan to the people. And, yet, Moses' declaration represents the true and eternal standard by which Jewish leadership is to be judged. Aaron failed the test of leadership precisely because a Jewish leader is supposed to fear God and cause the people to follow him: this is Kiddush HaShem (sanctification of God's Name)! -- he is not supposed to fear the people and cause himself to follow them: this is Chillul HaShem! Moreover, Aaron actually had no legitimate grounds to fear for his safety; for, had he but requested their assistance, the Levites -- Aaron's own tribe -- would have defended him against the demands of the people (see Ex. 32:26-29).
By his appeasement of the people, Aaron publicly exhibited before them a lack of faith in the God of Israel, thereby causing them to erroneously believe that, under the circumstances of Moses' undue absence, their demand for the creation of a talisman was justified. By his appeasement of the people, Aaron -- upon whom the people now depended for leadership -- instead failed them! By opening what he deemed to be a small crack in his wall of leadership, Aaron had allowed both himself and the Jewish people to be inundated by the floodwaters of Chillul HaShem. That Aaron's conduct was so severe as to be deserving of immediate death is established by Moses' later statement to the people that: "'HaShem became very angry with Aaron to destroy him; so I prayed also for Aaron at that time.'" (Deut. 9:20). Clearly, Aaron's actions were sinful, even though they were induced by fear and intimidation. From this we learn that, when issues of Kiddush HaShem and Chillul HaShem are at stake, a Jewish leader is prohibited from abdicating his responsibilities in favor of those whom he would lead -- even if the people self-righteously assert that principles of participatory democracy require him, as leader, to bow to majoritarian opinion. Such is the burden to be endured by all who aspire to leadership over the Jewish people.
However, a further lesson is to be found here. For, when he was faced with Moses' justified rebuke, Aaron lacked the honesty and courage to accept primary responsibility for the Sin that he had wrought. Instead, he simultaneously prevaricated and attempted to shift a leader's responsibility onto the people. As the Torah relates: "Aaron said, 'Let not my master's anger flare up. You know that the people are predisposed towards Evil. They said to me, "Make for us talismans that will go before us; for, this man Moses who brought us up from the Land of Egypt -- we do not know what became of him." So I said to them, "Who has gold?" They removed it and gave it to me. I threw it into the fire, and this calf emerged.'" (Ex. 32:22-24).
Firstly, Aaron's explanation to Moses concerning the supernatural creation
of the talisman conflicts with the earlier narrative of the Torah that: "He
[Aaron] took it [the gold] from their hands and bound it up in a cloth,
and he fashioned it into a molten calf" (Ex. 32:4); and with the
later narrative of the Torah that: "Then HaShem
struck the people with a plague, because they had created [an object of worship
from] the calf that Aaron had made." (Ex. 32:35). Moreover, by
asserting that the talisman had actually created itself ex nihilo, Aaron
thereby attributed to it divine powers.
In other words, in attempting to justify his disgraceful behavior, Aaron
put himself in the ironic position of claiming that the talisman was indeed a god! Clearly, Aaron's falsehood concerning the
creation of the talisman purchased for himself no honor. For, a Jewish leader
must forthrightly admit his mistakes as the first step in avoidance
of their repetition. David, second king of united
Secondly, the fact that the people were predisposed towards committing evil acts did not justify Aaron's embrace thereof. On the contrary, as a leader of the Jewish people, he was expected to guide them in overcoming such predispositions. This is not to minimize the huge Chillul HaShem caused by the Jewish people in initially demanding the creation of the talisman, and in thereafter worshipping it. However, although the people were certainly responsible for their own lack of faith and their own Sins, they were not responsible for Aaron's lack of faith and Sin -- a type of Sin which only a leader of the Jewish people was capable of committing.
While a Jew who lacks the responsibilities of leadership might be forgiven
for choosing appeasement and safety over confrontation and danger, a Jewish
leader -- by virtue of his exalted status -- will be forced to suffer the dire
consequences of his faithlessness and cowardice. So it was with Aaron. For, although God did not punish Aaron at
that time, he was eventually punished, together with Moses, on account of
their joint Sin at the Waters of Strife (see Num. 20:1-13). Like Moses, Aaron
was not permitted to enter the
The tragedy of Aaron's lack of faith and consequent failure of leadership is
similar to that which befell Saul, first king of united
With Jewish leadership come awesome responsibilities, chief among which are the obligations to:
(a) rule under the yoke of Yirat Elohim (fear of God) -- which requires a Jewish leader to rush towards Kiddush HaShem and flee from Chillul HaShem; and
(b) lead the people.
© Mark Rosenblit