Posted by: Subway Conductor | March 5, 2021

A Derasha on Parshat Ki Tissa

This week’s Torah portion brings us to the famous, or should I say infamous, episode of the Golden Calf. There are many questions to be asked in connection with this event. For instance, what was the role of Aaron? When Moses went up on Mount Sinai, Aaron – his brother – was left in charge. We could say that the incident of the Golden Calf happened under the Aaron’s watch. Why didn’t he prevent the people from going through with their desire to make a molten image? To make matters worse, when Moses questions Aaron about what happened, his response was problematic. When Moses comes down from the mountain and sees the people dancing around the Golden Calf, he says to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought such great sin upon them?” Aaron replies, “I said to the people, give me your gold. I hurled it into the fire and out came this calf.” The Talmud points out that leaders need to be careful about what they say. If their words are not precise, they can be misunderstood and the consequences can be catastrophic. Aaron, by saying, “and out came this calf” made it seem like he gave some credence to the idol. It sounds like it miraculously appeared out of the fire. While, of course, Aaron knew that he had made the molten calf.

           The commentators provide various answers to explain Aaron’s failure to prevent the backsliding. Some claim that Aaron was trying to delay. He pretended to go along with the people in the making of the Golden Calf, telling them to bring their gold and planning a festival for the next day, hoping that Moses would return and the whole thing would be negated. Another, more troubling explanation, is that the people had killed Hur who did try to stand up in opposition. Hur was one of the leaders, he is mentioned alongside Moses and Aaron. The Torah does not state explicitly who he was, but the Midrash states that he was Miriam’s son and hence the nephew of Moses and Aaron. Hur without explanation disappears from the narrative in Exodus. Again, though not stated explicitly in the Torah, the Midrash posits that he had been murdered by the Israelites because he did attempt to oppose the making of the Golden Calf. Therefore, Aaron was aware of the potential for violence and was intimidated. He also wanted to avoid providing the people with another opportunity for murder and so he did not oppose the people.

           I think we should consider another way of understanding this episode which gives us some insight into the nature of leadership. Aaron is most noted for being a peace-maker. In Pirkie Avot, we find the statement of Hillel, “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing it. Loving all human beings and bringing them near to the Torah.” Aaron was constantly involved in trying to bring reconciliation between people. The Midrash describes many incidents in which Aaron tries to resolve conflict between the Israelites, even to the point of intervening between husbands and wives who were not getting along. This trait of Aaron makes perfect sense of why he was the kohen – the priest. The role of the priests was to bring peace between the Jewish People and G-d. They officiated in the Mishkan, later in the Temple, offering the sacrifices which brough expiation. When someone committed a sin, they brought an offering to the Temple. The priest officiated ever the sacrifice, which  brought atonement. They also officiated at the communal offerings brought by the people as a whole. The role of the priests was to make peace between G-d and the Jewish People. Aaron is held up as a model of this peace-making role. However, this admirable trait is not necessarily the best one for a leader in all situations. Leaders who always attempt to appease their enemies, as we know from actual historical examples, can lead to terrible outcomes. Sometimes forceful and even aggressive leadership is required. If we compare Moses to Aaron, we can see the difference in their leadership qualities. When Moses comes down from the mountain and sees the Golden Calf and the people dancing around it, he immediately – before saying even one word – throws down the Tablets of the Law shattering them, burns the Golden Calf, grinds it up into fine powder, throws it into water and makes the people drink the water. Only then does he say to Aaron, “what did the people do to you?” We see the more forceful personality of Moses also in his appeal to G-d to forgive the people. He says, “if You are not going to forgive the people, then erase me from your book.” I am temped to say that his sounds like chutzpah on the part of Moses. Imagine saying to the creator of the universe, “if you don’t forgive the people then erase me from Your book.” Its almost as if he were giving an ultimatum. But, this more forceful, even aggressive, kind of leadership was required by the events.

           The Golden Calf is the paradigmatic sin in the Torah. But, this portion also contains the great example of forgiveness. Moses pleads for G-d to forgive the people and G-d tells him to bring up a second set of tablets. “I will write on these tablets the writing that was on the first Tablets which you broke.”  This second set of tablets is the symbol of forgiveness. They teach us that there is always hope for repentance to bring atonement. The second set of tablets stands for a second chance, an opportunity for a new beginning, for reconciliation. And when did Moses come down the mountain the second time with the second set of the Tablets of the Law – and this set is the one that remains – on Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement because it was the day on which Moses brought the second set of Tablets with the same writing as was on the first set.

Good Shabbos!!


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