By David Cohen, Director of Congregational Learning
Moses and the Golden Calf: The Obligations of Leadership and the Invested Community
In Exodus 30:11 – 34:35 we are presented with the story of Moses and the Golden Calf. In many commentaries it is a story of impatience, fear, and anxiety over a loss of direction and a need for guidance at a time when it appeared there was none. The Israelites were a group, throughout the narrative of the Exodus from Egypt, who had lost their familiarity with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For example, we don’t even know if Jacob’s son, Joseph was a visible patriarch in that legacy or if he, like so many others, may have assimilated fully into Egyptian culture. By the time we get to the time of Moses, the Israelites know themselves as a people, but seemingly, they do not know God. After leaving Egypt, much is made of their constant desire to either return to Egypt or return to the life they knew. That too, as an analysis, is a common source of insight. They were so afraid of the new and the unknown, that they were willing to return to lives as slaves to avoid what they did not know. The metaphors for our own modern lives abound. And in many ways that is why the Exodus narrative is such a profound and rich one in our educational year.
The Israelites are actually provided with a number of leaders who help liberate them from their bondage, yet they are still afraid. Noted Scholar and speaker on Jewish Peoplehood, Avraham Infeld, described how in addition to Moses, who was the visionary but not the best communicator or manager, the Israelites had Miriam, who brought the ruach, the spirit or the passion to the leadership team. They had Aaron, who was always there to listen, to validate, but rarely to challenge or set straight. They also had Joshua, who while yet to fully take power, was the administrator, the planner, the future of leadership – the comforting continuity in leadership. With all this in place, the Israelites were still always afraid, always ready to revert back to their previous ways, and often talking of rebellion and dissatisfaction.
In the text, it is noted that the Israelites “saw” that Moses did not come down from the mountain. They were anxious and worried. And who wouldn’t be. Based on what we know from Yitro, Moses was THE leader. Moses is basically admonished by Jethro his father in law to delegate more, to trust in other leaders. Moses may be a visionary, but he was not the best strategic leader. Despite Jethro’s advice, much of the style of leadership was still all about Moses. Although Moses was advised to delegate authority and in the rebellion narratives, it is clear he never really got the idea of valuing the opinion of others. Yes it is our responsibility to be patient with our leaders, but our leaders must deliver.
To be fair, the Israelites did wait. They grumbled, but they did wait. And in the text it is written that they “saw” that Moses did not return. What was it that they “saw” however and why was it phrased like that? It could be that the visceral idea of looking and looking for leadership, and still not seeing it is even more painful than just a vacuum or an absence. Being promised things and not really seeing them come to fruition is frustrating and can often cause people to throw up their hands and walk away. Again, the metaphors abound for our own lives and our own Judaism. In fact, if leaders don’t deliver, it is as if God hasn’t delivered. That is both a daunting responsibility, but also an awesome one. Leaders must find a way to lead so that the people can connect with God in the best possible way. That is both a lesson for educational leaders and organizational leaders in the Jewish community.
Interestingly, in the previous narratives, God seems to get this and instructs the Israelites in the creation of the tabernacle and anticipation of giving of the law to Moses. God gets that the people need more, and they need more than just leadership. God needed something tangible for the leaders to work with to bring the message of God – not the abstractness of God – to the Israelites. This is why the concept of idolatry and its contrast with Adonai comes to a head in this story. We await the tabernacle and it’s housing of the law, but in true cliffhanger fashion, just before it does what it was meant to do – bring the law to the people – they can wait no longer. So what was the tabernacle and how was it meant to address this problem? Well in one of our 7th grade classes recently, we discussed the plans for the Mishkan and they had an interesting take.
Ingeniously, as we were trying to find out what was really going on here, one of the students began to describe the Mishkan as an RV. According to the text, this RV or Mishkan, was supposed to house the “law” that God gave to Moses and bring “God” into direct contact with the Israelites. According to our students, this was not about bringing a magical mysterious being into contact with the people. It was about the laws, the practices, the values and the Mitzvot that would guide the people and allow them to live the life God intended for them. No longer would the message just come from Moses – or any of the other leaders. The point of this part of the biblical Narrative was to say, in a sense, I/we get it. You need more. Stories about God, about Abraham and his open tent are not enough. You need to understand God. In order to have faith, as Moses does, you need to be able to come closer to God – as Moses did. Well, here you go. Here is the law. Now go learn it.
In Ki Tisa, the Israelites don’t actually have the Mishkan yet. We know it was the plan. We know it was coming. We know the details of the construction of the Mishkan were very important. But as Moses is up on the mountain waiting for what will eventually be inside the Mishkan – what will eventually help people come closer to God – they rebel.
And in this story we can look at tis rebellion in many different angles. We can look at whether leadership failed in keeping the Israelites connected in the absence of true understanding. We can look at whether the people failed in not trusting in their leaders or in God. Or we can look at how much the Mishkan was needed. We can look at how much, despite having amazing leaders, despite having an amazing community, we NEED to understand God. Community as culture just doesn’t cut it. It is a start, as it was in the biblical narrative. But community as only a cultural heritage, without wrestling with Torah, just does not lend itself to the kind of kehillah Abraham, Moses and Adonai had in mind. How do we know this? Well we know this from Ki Tisa the community fell into chaos. We are Jews because of our heritage and our culture. But we are a holy Jewish community because of our continued attempt to come closer to God through Mitzvot, Torah, and Talmud. (And the RV that houses them. Shall we take a spin?)