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Provided by Hillel’s Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, which creates educational resources for Jewish organizations on college campuses.
These last weeks Moses has been atop the mountain gathering information from God about the building of the tabernacle and all of its features. It has been an awesome and holy experience for him atop Mount Sinai. Meanwhile, down below, the people are getting anxious waiting for Moses. “He said 40 days! Where is he?” The people begin to question their leadership. Here is what happens:
1. When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, “Come make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt we do not know what has happened to him.”
2. Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”
3. And all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron.
4. This he took from them and cast in a mold and made it into a molten calf. And they exclaimed, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!”
5. When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron announced: “Tomorrow shall be a festival of YHWH!”
6. Early next day, the people offered up burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to dance.
7. YHWH spoke to Moses, “GO, GO DOWN, for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely…”
Your Torah Navigator
1. Why did the people build the golden calf?
2. Why did Aaron help them?
3. Was Moses a good leader in this situation?
4. Was Aaron a good leader in this situation?
And YHWH spoke, “spoke” and not “said.” This implies rough speech [God spoke (roughly) to Moses]… GO, GO DOWN from your high position; I have given you distinction only for their sake! At that moment Moses was excommunicated by a decree of the heavenly court.
Your Rashi Navigator
1. Even God is angry with Moses. Why is God angry?
2. Who is at fault here? Moses? Aaron? The people?
3. What could have been done differently by Moses, Aaron, or the community?
The golden calf incident seems to be a case of bad leadership all around. Rashi shows us how God chastises Moses for his poor leadership of the people. If Moses had communicated better with the people before he left to climb the mountain, perhaps they would not have doubted him so much.
And yet, Aaron too, was at fault. He had allowed the people to riot by not providing them with any clear leadership instructions. Some interpreters say that Aaron was only trying to stall for time until Moses came back. And yet Aaron’s advice created havoc and rioting among our people! Ramban even suggests that Moses later yells at Aaron saying: “What kind of hatred did you have for this people that you thought to cause their destruction and annihilation?” Clearly, Aaron was partly to blame for this disaster.
And finally, responsibility also lies in each member of the Israelite community. The commentator Sforno points out that if there had been even one or two Israelites righteous enough to speak out, Aaron would have had enough support to desist from making the golden calf.
Indeed, when a situation of chaos and defeat arises in a community, it is easy to blame others. But in truth, each of us is responsible for our actions. And when a community fails, it causes each of us to GO DOWN for a time. May each of us RISE UP to make our communities a place of responsibility and holiness.
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