Moses, after being on Mount Sinai for 40 days, descends from the mountain with the greatest literary work of all time, the Torah. He is anxious to share it with the people of Israel. But instead of seeing a people eager to share the experience with him, he sees a people worshipping a golden calf, the antithesis of God’s declaration that the people should worship no other gods. Moses is furious. He smashes the tablets.
But wait, where does this calf come from? It turns out that it has been fashioned by Aaron who has gathered up the gold of the people. Aaron further builds an altar for a sacrifice on which the people will make a burnt offering to this calf. Isn’t this the same Aaron who is Moses’ brother and acted as his spokesperson with the Pharaoh? Didn’t this same Aaron help lead the Exodus? And further, does not this same Aaron become anointed as the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, later in the Exodus saga? While Israelites are forced by Moses to drink water that includes the ground-up golden calf in it, why is it that Aaron seems to get off free from punishment and eventually becomes the Israelites’ sole religious representative to God in the Holy of Holies?
Over the centuries, commentators have struggled with this event in the history of our people. Some, like Yehuda HaLevi, defend the Israelites. Some say that the formation of the Golden Calf was to find an alternative way to address God and not treat the calf as a separate God. Some say it was just a very small percentage of the people who insisted on the Golden Calf. A midrash blames Satan for conjuring up visions of a dead Moses.
Others take Aaron to task for a failure of leadership while others see him as merely trying to keep the peace and delay the people until Moses returns by demanding the people bring their wives and children’s earrings to be melted down. Perhaps he was even acting out of fear for his life is yet another theory. But no matter what the reasoning and who is at fault, Aaron really had no guaranteed outcomes based on any choice he made in the face of a mob. And it takes Moses, the man who lost his temper, smashed the tablets and punished the Israelites, to convince God to spare the people.
Yet with all of their apparent faults in this incident, Moses and Aaron remain leaders of the people even in the aftermath of this event. And when Aaron dies toward the end of the Israelite journey in the wilderness near the end of the Torah, all the people of Israel mourn Aaron for 30 days. Yet when Moses dies a little later, he does not have the same profound reaction from the entire people. The commentators tell us that the reason that there was less mourning for Moses was because Moses reproved them, he told them when they were wrong, while Aaron never did.
There was most assuredly a difference in leadership style between Moses and Aaron. But while they had different styles, perhaps what made them both great leaders, albeit imperfect, is what they had in common. Each of them was ultimately concerned with the spiritual well-being of their people above their own. Each of them was willing to sacrifice of himself in highly personal ways for the success and survival of the people of Israel. Each acted with humility and integrity. It is through these qualities that they are both models for leadership despite their different styles and deportment.
We see a similar leadership difference in the two scholarly houses of Hillel and Shammai. The two houses often disagreed about matters of Jewish law. Hillel was generally the more populist and moderate of the two but they were both deserving of respect because although they argued with each other, their arguments were not for the sake of their own egos or a need to be right but L’Shaym Shamayim, for the sake of holiness.
It should come as no surprise that it was Hillel in Pirkei Avot who says that one should be a disciple of Aaron, one who loves peace and pursues peace, loves mankind and brings them close to the Torah. But sometimes this style is not appropriate to the matter at hand. Sometimes a tougher love is needed.
And while Moses smashed the tablets in anger, perhaps his style was not appropriate to that moment, either. We know that it was his temper that eventually barred him from entering the land of Israel when he struck the rock to bring forth water instead of speaking to it as instructed by God.
But in the end, it was the the combination of the two styles that guided the Israelites out of Egypt, oversaw the transition from slaves to free people, helped the people understand the importance of God’s law even when they stumbled, and taught the values of justice and holiness. Even if imperfect, it was a type of leadership worth having. pjc
Rabbi Yaier Lehrer is rabbi of Adat Shalom Congregation.