When Moses goes up to Mount Sinai, the Israelite people are left alone to their own devices. As their spiritual leader, how does Moses respond when they make a grave mistake? In her Dvar Torah to Parashat Ki Tissa, Rabbi Gail Diamond shows us what this important episode teaches about the nature of true leadership.
Moses on Mount Sinai by Jean Leon Gerome. public domain
By Rabbi Gail Diamond
This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, describes perhaps the greatest sin of the Jewish people. Shortly after receiving the ten commandments, including the commandment not to worship other gods, the people build the Golden Calf and declare, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4).
Moses is busy speaking with God on Mount Sinai. The people’s great sin is brought on by Moses’ absence. As they say to Aaron, “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” (Exodus 32:1). As Moses experiences transcendence for forty days on Mount Sinai, the people are experiencing a spiritual absence, resulting in a breakdown of their faith in Hashem.
When God sees what has happened, God immediately tells Moses to get down off the mountain, “Hurry down, for your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely” (Exodus 32:7).
But Moses does not “go down” – instead he begins to plead on behalf of the people. Moses implores God to forgive the people and according to verse 14, “The Lord renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon His people.” Only then does Moses descend and take charge.
When Moses descends and the revelry and idolatry do not stop, Moses calls the Levites, who slaughter 3,000 people. After this Moses tells the people to re-dedicate themselves and offers to go back up the mountain to plead for God’s forgiveness.
As the dialogue between Moses and God develops, Moses attempts to win back a connection between the people and God. In chapter 33, Moses seeks to get a clearer understanding of how God plans to continue leading the people on their journey:
“Now if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, that I make know you and continue in Your favor. Consider, too that this nation is Your people” (Exodus 33:13).
God’s response is not clear: And He said, “I will go in the lead and will (literally: My face will go and I will) lighten your burden” (Exodus 33:14).
According to one Talmudic midrash, the term “my face” refers to God’s anger. The Midrash interprets the verse non-literally:
Berachot 7a: And Rabbi Yoḥanan said in the name of Rabbi Yosei: From where is it derived that one must not placate a person in his anger? As it is written, “My face will go, and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33:14). The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Moses: Wait until My face of wrath will pass and I will grant your request.
In God’s response in verse 14, whether we understand it as “I will go in the lead” or “My face of wrath will pass,” God responds to Moses but does not mention the people. Moses had explicitly included the people in his request: “Consider too that this nation is your people” (Exodus 33:13).
Thus God’s response to Moses in verse 14 is insufficient. Moses again requests more “Unless you go in the lead, do not make us leave this place. For how shall it be known that Your people have gained Your favor unless You go with us…” (Exodus 33:15-16).
As Ibn Ezra explains these verses (in his commentary to Exodus 33:21):
I will lighten your burden. The meaning of “your” – for with you only will I go, and I will not dwell amidst the children of Israel. Therefore Moses answered, “Unless you go in the lead” with the nation that he mentioned above, “consider too that this nation is your people.” “Do not make us leave this place” in plural, and the faithful witness to this interpretation is “For how shall it be known that Your people have gained your favor unless You go with us.”
Moses left the people and went to the mountain to commune with God. In his absence, they sinned greatly. Upon learning of the sin, Moses did not go down the mountain as God ordered. He stayed and implored God until God renounced the intended punishment. Then Moses continued to dialogue with God to resolve the breach, to repair the damage between God and the people and to bring God into the midst of the people to guide them.
Two lessons stand out from these crucial moments in our spiritual history: 1. Spiritual leaders cannot be absent – even for important moments of holiness – and expect those they lead to fare alone. 2. A true spiritual leader never gives up on the people they lead, but constantly works to bring them closer to God and God closer to them.
Even when the Israelites (and Moses’s own brother!) went as far as to commit a great sin, Moses did not desert his role as their leader. At times when those we would lead seem to be behaving at their worst, we must continue to see the best in others, to work on their behalf, and to encourage those around us to live up to their best selves. True human rights work is based on a positive view of humanity – something that Moses never lost sight of, even in his most challenging moments.
Rabbi Gail Diamond is a member of Rabbis for Human Rights
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