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 rings of gold that were in their ears, and
brought them to Aaron. He [Aaron] took it [the gold] from their hands and
shaped it with a tool, and he made it into a molten calf; and they said, 'These
are elohecha, 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 comfortably 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 the creation of “elohim”? Although the Hebrew-language word traditionally transliterated as “Elohim” is the first-revealed Name of God (see Gen. 1:1), depending on the context, “elohim” may also refer to and be translated as, inter alia, “master” (e.g., Ex. 7:1), “gods” (e.g., Ex. 20:2), “judges” (e.g., Ex. 22:8) or “rulers” (e.g., Gen. 6:2; Deut. 10:17). Although, throughout Exodus 32:1-10, the word “elohim” and the related possessive “elohecha” is traditionally translated, respectively, as “gods” and “your gods”, I believe that this translation is contextually incorrect. For, after hearing the Voice of God and seeing the Power of God at Mount Sinai (see Ex. 19:9 - 20:20), the Jewish people were neither so ignorant nor so illogical as to believe that Aaron -- a mortal being -- was capable of creating 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, the people were demanding the creation of a substitute for the absent Moses rather than a substitute for the Omnipresent God. In light of the foregoing, I believe that the proper translations of “elohim” and “elohecha” in this context are, respectively, “talismans” and “your talismans” -- tangible objects imbued with supernatural powers -- so that the relevant portions of the text are more appropriately 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, ‘These are your talismans, O Israel, which brought you up from the Land of Egypt.’”
In light of the fact that Aaron created only one talisman -- the image of a single calf covered in melted gold -- why did the people refer to that object in the plural? Perhaps the people believed that each donated earring (by virtue of its incorporation into the golden calf) had become a talisman, which caused them to view Aaron’s creation as an amalgamation of innumerable talismans.
That the Jewish people would believe in the power and efficacy of talismans 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 by day and [by] night.” (Ex. 13:21).
Further proof that the golden calf was intended to be a Moses-substitute rather than a God-substitute comes from the fact that Aaron created an immature bull (Hebrew: עגל, which is transliterated as “egel”) rather than a mature bull (Hebrew: אלוף, which is transliterated as “aluf”).
In order to understand the reason for this assertion, it is necessary to consider the ancient pictographs from which the letters of the Hebrew language emerged.
The mature bull -- “aluf” -- is spelled: “alef lamed vav pey”. The pictographs from which these four letters emerged are, respectively, the bull’s head, the shepherd’s staff, the tent peg and the mouth, which symbolically represent, respectively, the ideas of power/strength, guidance/teaching/authority, securing/adding/hook and voice/blowing.
However, the immature bull -- “egel” -- is spelled: “ayin gimel lamed”. The pictographs from which these three letters emerged are, respectively, the eye, the foot and the shepherd’s staff, which symbolically represent, respectively, the ideas of seeing/knowing, walking/gathering and guidance/teaching/authority.
Consequently, while the aluf would have been a symbolic manifestation of God (Who had recently demonstrated to the Jewish people His Attributes of Guidance, Power, Resoluteness and Voice), the egel was a symbolic manifestation of Moses (who had demonstrated -- and who would continue to demonstrate -- to the Jewish people his attributes of guidance, tireless walking and provident seeing). In this context, it is noteworthy that these latter attributes are highlighted in the Torah’s eulogy for Moses, which, inter alia, states: “Moses was 120 years old when he died; his eye had not dimmed, and his vigor had not diminished” (Deut. 34:7)
Lastly, the egel is a vulnerable creature which survives only under the protection of the aluf, just as mortal Moses was able to perform his assigned tasks only under the Protection of God.
Why did Aaron, the high priest of God, comply with the people’s demand to create “elohim” for them? 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 by creating that which he intended to serve as a symbolic substitute for their temporarily-absent human guide rather than as an object of Divine worship. Yet, in so doing, he violated the Second Commandment which, inter alia, prohibits the creation of such objects (see Ex. 20:3-6) as well as God’s Reiteration of that Instruction (see Ex. 20:19-20), thereby effecting an enormous Chillul HaShem (desecration of God’s Name). And, once the people, in a fit of irreverence, declared that it was actually Aaron’s creation rather than Moses acting under the Supervision of God who had taken them out of Egypt, Aaron realized that the people would not be content to limit his creation to its intended purpose, but that they 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, Aaron 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 creation of a forbidden object, 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 talismans 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 talismans 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 the principles of participatory democracy require him to bow to majoritarian demand. 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 elohim 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 shaped it with a tool,
and he made 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.
Alternatively stated, 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
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 talismans, and in thereafter worshipping that creation. 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 his 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 ultimately 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 God; and
(b) lead -- rather than follow -- the people.
© Mark Rosenblit