By: Rabbi Jack Luxemburg,
Temple Beth Ami
, Rockville, Maryland, USA
In this week’s Torah portion, the spiritual relationship between a leader and his/her people is explored through the events surrounding the episode of
– the Golden Calf. Our ancestors experienced Moses’ long stay on Mt. Sinai as abandonment and loss. They became desperate for a new leader, one that would offer a tangible and perceptible form of reassurance.
“When the people saw that Moses did not fulfill their expectation that he would come down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron, and they said to him, ‘Arise, make us gods who shall go before us, because this man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him’.” (Exodus 32:1)
Setting aside the misperception that it was Moses who brought our ancestors out of Egypt, it is telling that the request is not for another person to take the place of Moses, but rather, a god. The cry is for evidence that some supernal being is present and able to guide, protect and provide for them. Though greatly mistaken, their request is rooted in very human emotions that any person can appreciate. In moments of fear, loss or uncertainty, we look for a comforting sign that Creation is not arrayed against us, but rather that the Creator is mindful of our struggle, assuring us we are not alone and that we will persevere.
Furthermore, interestingly, God speaks to Moses about the situation as if he, Moses, was to blame for our ancestors’ lapse into spiritual confusion and idolatry.
The Lord spoke to Moses: “Go down, for
brought out of Egypt have dealt corruptly.” (Exodus 32:7)
The tone of the verse suggests facetiousness on God’s part, implying that our ancestors attributed their miraculous liberation to Moses because he permitted that perception to take hold and persist. Therefore, now God prods Moses saying “
(Moses’) people who
(Moses) brought …”
Clearly, Moses understands the implication. In seeking God’s pardon he says:
“If now I have found favor in Your sight, O Lord, let the Lord, I beseech you, walk in
midst; for it is a stiff necked people; and pardon
iniquity and our sin, and take
for Your own.” (Exodus 34:9)
By acknowledging that while not guilty of the sin, he bore responsibility, Moses did what a good leader does – he identified himself with his people and was one with them in a time of crisis, rather than standing apart from them. He was prepared to share in their fate. Indeed, the Torah makes clear in this and in other instances that when our people reached great heights, so did Moses. When our ancestors’ faith flagged or they acted immorally, Moses was diminished and implicated in their transgression.
This interrelatedness between Moses and our ancestors is summed up in the rabbinic adage s
hakul Moshe k’neged shishim ribbo
, meaning “Moses was equivalent to the six hundred thousand Israelites”. (Midrash on Song of Songs, 6:9 cited in
My Perfect One: Typology and Early Rabbinic Interpretation of Song of Songs
, Jonathan Kaplan, Oxford University Press, p. 100). In the spirit of Song of Songs, it is a way of stating that soul to soul, spirit to spirit, Moses and our people were as one.
This is evident in how the
recounts Moses’ response to the crisis of faith and fear of abandonment that resulted in the episode of the Golden Calf. Both Moses and our ancestors shared the desire for reassurance and confirmation — our ancestors through a “representation”, the Golden Calf; Moses through a “manifestation”, an experience of God’s very presence.
After pleading with God on behalf of the people, Moses asks:
“And now, if I have attained worthiness of favor in Your eyes, enable me, I pray to know Your ways … Let me, I pray, behold your glory.” (Exodus 33:13-18)
In moments of crisis, uncertain of our own capacity to cope or persevere, we often look beyond ourselves to find reservoirs of strength, renewed faith and confidence. Both our ancestors and Moses did the same, precisely because, as the
suggests, they shared the same spirit, even when it was shaken. So why is one deemed sinful, and the other rewarded with a revelation of the divine as profound as a human can experience?
Perhaps it is because while Moses and our ancestors shared the same distress, they represent different spiritual responses. The people sought to restore the reassurance provided by a good leader rather than a way to affirm their faith in God and the divine providence that brought them safely to Sinai. Confused, they sought to replace one non-god with another, and so lapse into the sin of idolatry. Moses’ desire was for spiritual affirmation and the reassurance that comes though a reinforced sense of the Divine presence in his own life’s purpose and in the destiny of our people – which are one and the same. He was rewarded with the insight to recognize where God has been immediately present and has acted (Exodus 33:19 -23).
In moments of crisis, we wish for the reassurance and understanding of Divine purpose sought by both Moses and our ancestors. We, too, are one with them in spirit. Hopefully, we can learn from this week’s Torah portion to avoid depending on those sources that are false and will ultimately fail us. Instead, let us focus on what was granted to Moses and learn to recognize the Providence present whenever we – as individuals or as a people – find our way through experiences of disappointment, defeat or distress. As Rabbi Samson Raphael suggests, “You will not see Me (God) at work; you can and shall see the traces of My Presence and My Providence” (Commentary on Exodus 33:23). May such insight guide us, inspire us and strengthen us always.