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 Exodus 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 Exodus 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." (Exodus 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 Egypt has become corrupt. They have strayed quickly from the Way that I have commanded them. They have made themselves a molten calf, prostrated themselves to it and sacrificed to it; and they said, "These are elohecha, O Israel, which brought you up from the Land of Egypt."' And HaShem said to Moses: 'I have seen this people, and -- behold -- it is a stiff-necked people. And now, desist from Me; and let My Anger flare up against them, and I shall annihilate them; and I shall make of you a great nation.'" (Exodus 32:1-10)

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 leader of the Jewish people, and the 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 Genesis 1:1), depending on the context, “elohim” may also refer to and be translated as, inter alia, “master” (e.g., Exodus 7:1), “gods” (e.g., Exodus 20:2), “judges” (e.g., Exodus 22:8) or “rulers” (e.g., Genesis 6:2; and Deuteronomy 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 Exodus 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 facsimile of a 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.’” (Exodus 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 further 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.” (Exodus 13:21)

Further proof that the golden calf was intended to be a Moses-substitute rather than a God-substitute is derived 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 -- אלוף 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  א,  guidance/teaching/authority  ל,  securing/adding/hook  ו,  and voice/blowing  ף.

However, the immature bull -- עגל 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  ע,  walking/gathering  ג,  and guidance/teaching/authority  ל.

Consequently, the aluf would have been a symbolic manifestation of God (Who had recently demonstrated to the Jewish people His Attributes of Power א, Guidance ל, Resoluteness ו, and Voice ף).  Moreover, the bull had been a longstanding object of worship throughout Mesopotamia, the Levant and Egypt. 

Contrariwise, the egel was a symbolic manifestation of Moses (who had demonstrated -- and who would continue to demonstrate -- to the Jewish people his attributes of provident seeing ע, tireless walking ג, and guidance ל).  In this context, it is noteworthy that these very attributes -- in the foregoing order -- 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. … And there has not arisen another Prophet in Israel like Moses, whom HaShem knew Face to face.” (Deuteronomy 34:7 & 10)

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 Exodus 20:3-6) as well as God’s Reiteration of that Instruction (see Exodus 20:19-20), thereby effecting an enormous Chillul HaShem (desecration of God’s Name). 

However, 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 led 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 an idolatrous purpose.  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" (Exodus 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?" (Exodus 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, he nonetheless asserted that 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' assertion 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, which creates a Kiddush HaShem (sanctification of God's Name)! -- he is not supposed to fear the people and cause himself to follow them, which creates a Chillul HaShem (desecration of God’s Name)!  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 Exodus 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.'" (Deuteronomy 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 demands. 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.'" (Exodus 32:22-24)

Firstly, Aaron's explanation to Moses concerning the supernatural creation of the talisman conflicts with

(1) the earlier account 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” (Exodus 32:4); and

(2) the later account 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." (Exodus 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 garnered 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 Israel, well understood this principle. When the Prophet Nathan rebuked him for having caused the death of Uriah so that he could possess Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, David immediately displayed the honesty and courage to acknowledge the Chillul HaShem that he had wrought. As the Hebrew Bible relates:

"David said to Nathan, 'I have sinned to HaShem!'" (II Samuel 12:13)

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 Numbers 20:1-13). Like Moses, Aaron was not permitted to enter the Land of Israel; and he, consequently, perished in the Wilderness (see Numbers 20:22-29).

The tragedy of Aaron's lack of faith and consequent failure of leadership is similar to that which befell Saul, first king of united Israel. The Prophet Samuel had instructed Saul to await him at Gilgal for seven days, at which time Samuel would offer sacrifices to God and instruct Saul as to his next course of action (see I Samuel 10:8). However, in the meantime, the Philistines had raised an enormous army and now advanced against Israel, thereby striking fear among the Jewish people and causing many to flee. When Samuel did not appear at Gilgal at the promised time, the remnants of the frightened Jewish army began to disband, thereby causing Saul to question whether God would protect him in battle. So, in order to appease the fear of the Jewish people, Saul himself offered up a sacrifice to God, despite the fact that he was not so authorized. As the Hebrew Bible relates:

"It was just as he finished offering up the elevation-offering when -- behold -- Samuel arrived; and Saul went forth to greet him. Samuel said, 'What have you done?' Saul said, 'Because I saw that the people were disbanding from me, and you had not arrived by the arranged day, and that the Philistines were gathering at Michmas, and I thought, "Now the Philistines will descend upon me to Gilgal, and I have not supplicated before HaShem"; so I fortified myself and offered up the elevation-offering.' Samuel said to Saul, 'You have acted foolishly! You did not keep the Commandment of HaShem, your God, that He commanded you. [Until] now HaShem would have established your kingdom over Israel forever, but now your kingdom shall not endure. HaShem has sought a man after His own Heart and has appointed him as ruler over His People, because you have not observed that which HaShem has commanded you.' Then Samuel arose and went up from Gilgal to Gibeath-benjamin." (I Samuel 13:10-15)

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


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