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לימוד תורה

Leadership in a time of crisis and a golden calf

The Parasha and its realization - Parashat Ki Tisah - Rabbi Eliezer Shenvald 5783

In memory of my mother Nechama Shenvald on her sixth Yahrzeit.

A time of national crisis is a time for leadership, for someone to take responsibility and lead to a real and responsible solution, and will not let the situation get out of control. However, during a crisis there are always those who precisely seek to take advantage of the created crisis to impose their agenda on the public, which is not necessarily in their favor.

Among our Sages and Commentators, the opinions were divided as to whether the ‘Golden Calf” was a ritual act of idolatry (Sanhedrin 63a, Tractate Avodah Zara (“Idolatry”) 53b, Rashi in our Parasha), or a leadership crisis due to Moshe’s delay, since there were those who saw the delay as evidence that he had died:

עשה לנו אלוהים, “make a new Judge for us!” The people saying this to Aaron did not intend for that symbol to be an idol, but to be a supreme judge in lieu of Moshe, who they thought had died on the Mountain”. (Masters of the Tosafot -Shemot 32:1). The Jews weren't looking for a real G-d that gives and takes life, but merely a replacement for Moshe to guide them until his return.

Moshe Rabeinu was a leader of the highest order, who led the people of Israel in the exodus from Egypt and the people depended on him:

כִּי־זֶ֣ה משֶׁ֣ה הָאִ֗ישׁ “Because this man Moshe” - Moshe is called a 'man' for perfection and leadership, according to the fact that he led Israel like a man who leads the people of his own house" (Yalkut Ma'or Haafela, Shmot 32 -14).

Since they believed he had died, they felt powerless, and asked for an alternate leader:

אמרו, משה שהורה לנו הדרך ממצרים ועד הנה, שהיו המסעים עפ"י ה' ביד משה (במדבר ט כג), הנה אבד ממנו, נעשה לנו משה אחר שיורה הדרך לפנינו עפ"י ה' בידו

“Instead, they wanted another Moshe, saying: “Moshe, the man who showed us the way from Egypt until now, being in charge of the journeyings at the commandment of the Eternal by the hand of Moshe, he is now lost to us; let us make ourselves another Moshe who will show us the way at the commandment of the Eternal by his hand.” (Ramban Shemot 32:1)

This explanation raises a difficult question: Why was it necessary to declare about the calf:

אֵ֤לֶּה אֱלֹקיךָ֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר הֶעֱל֖וּךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

 “These are your gods, O Israel, who have brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (Shemot 32:4).

תימה וכי שוטים היו שלא היו יודעים שעגל זה בן יומו לא העלם ממצרים

"Were they fools who did not know that this one-day calf did not bring them up from Egypt?" (Riva on Torah ibid). And what was the logic in making a 'calf' as a substitute for leadership?!

'ויאמרו אלה אלהיך ישראל אשר העלוך'

“…upon which they said: "These are your gods, O Israel, who have brought you up from the land of Egypt!"

גם זה הכתוב יורה אותנו, כי אין טיפש בעולם שיחשוב כי הזהב הזה אשר היה באזניהם הוא אשר הוציאם ממצרים, אבל אמרו כי כח הצורה הזאת העלם משם. והנה לא תמצא שיאמר בעגל בשום מקום אשר הוציאנו ממצרים, כי הם מודים במי שאמר 'אנכי ה' אלהיך אשר הוצאתיך מארץ מצרים' (לעיל כ ב), כי שמו הגדול הוא המוציא אותם משם"

"This verse also will teach you [that they had no intention of worshipping it as an idol], for there is no fool in the world who would think that this gold which was in their ears is that which brought them up out of the land of Egypt. Rather, they said that the power of that figure brought them up out of there. Thus you will find that in no place does it say of the calf, “which brought us ‘out’ of Egypt,” for they acknowledged Him Who said, I am the Eternal thy G-d, who brought thee ‘out’ of the land of Egypt, and that it was by His Great Name that He delivered them from there”. (Ramban Shemot 32:4)

Also, one must ask the opinion of those who thought that Moshe did not return because he had died, why did they not choose Aaron as his replacement?

Sages explained that those who led the ‘episode of the Golden Calf’ (Egel HaZahav), were the 'Erev Rav' (mixed multitude) who joined the people of Israel in the exodus from Egypt. They came with their idolatrous Egyptian agenda, and constantly tried to pull in its direction, in order to influence the conduct of the people of Israel:

עגל מסכה. כֵּיוָן שֶׁהִשְׁלִיכוֹ לָאוּר בְּכוּר, בָּאוּ מְכַשְּׁפֵי עֵרֶב רַב שֶׁעָלוּ עִמָּהֶם מִמִּצְרַיִם וַעֲשָׂאוּהוּ בִכְשָׁפִים

עגל מסכה A Molten Calf — As soon as he (Aaron) had thrown it (the gold) into the fire in a melting pot the magicians amongst the mixed multitude who had come up with them from Egypt came and made it (the golden calf) by their magic art.

וְלֹא נֶאֱמַר אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֵינוּ, מִכָּאן שֶׁעֵרֶב רַב שֶׁעָלוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם הֵם שֶׁנִּקְהֲלוּ עַל אַהֲרֹן וְהֵם שֶׁעֲשָׂאוּהוּ, וְאַחַר כָּךְ הִטְעוּ אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל אַחֲרָיו

אלה אלהיך These Are Thy Gods, [O Israel] — It does not state that they said “these are our gods, [O Israel]”; hence we may learn that it was the mixed multitude which came up from Egypt that gathered themselves together against Aaron, and it was they who made it and afterwards led Israel astray after it” (Rashi Shmot 32:1-4).

However, as long as Moshe Rabeinu was the leader, the ‘mixed multitude’ could not cause any harm. During the leadership crisis caused by Moshe’s absence, the 'Erev Rav' wanted to take advantage of the opportunity that had arisen. They wanted to prove that their pagan agenda was the right one, and impose it.

ואמרו לאהרן המצריים היו נושאין את אלהיהם ומשוררין ומזמרין לפניו ורואין אותו לפניהם קום עשה לנו אלהים אשר ילכו לפנינו כשקוץ המצריים ונראה אותו לפנינו שנ' קום עשה לנו אלהים אשר ילכו לפנינו.

“…and they said to Aaron: The Egyptians were carrying their god, and they were singing and uttering hymns before it, and they saw it before them. Make unto us a god like the gods of the Egyptians, and let us see it before us, as it is said, "Up, make us a god" (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 45)

They speeded up the making of the calf as long as Moshe Rabeinu was away. To offer the people of Israel a leadership 'replacement', which will be under their control and will make the people dependent on their magic. A 'substitute' that will look like a solution to the problem. This way they will be able to control the leadership, which is a cover for their agenda. Therefore, there was no chance that they would allow the people to accept Aaron as a leader who replaced Moshe Rabeinu, and continue on his way. Moshe’s return from Mount Sinai a day later disrupted their plan. 

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