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The Golden Calf and a Golden Rule of Leadership

A Firsthand Account from Har Sinai

16 Tammuz, Mount Sinai – Wow, it had been quite a journey from Egypt, I thought. The bitter multi-generational slavery that our nation endured until the Ten Plagues and epic splitting of the Yam Suf. And now, here we were waiting in anticipation at the foot of Mount Sinai, ready to greet Moshe on his return from learning the Torah with G-d.[1]

Moshe told us he would return by noon of the 40th day after his ascent. But now it was becoming gloomy and dark, and like any Jewish mother, we were becoming anxious.

A mob gathered around Moshe’s brother, Aharon the Kohen Gadol. No one knew what delayed Moshe and we had assumed the worst. “Get up!” one shouted. “Establish a new leader for us!” others exclaimed.[2]

“Remove your gold earrings and bring them to me,” Aharon instructed.

Without hesitation,[3] mothers removed expensive jewelry from themselves and their children. In unison we departed from our wealth, committed to create a new G-d-conduit that could replace Moshe.

Aharon wrapped our gold earrings inside a cloth and threw the bundle into a fiery oven. As it seared in the oven the Ereiv Rav, a rabble of Egyptians and other nationalities who escaped Egypt with us, led by Micah, approached the fire and performed incantations and charms.

I remember Micah. At one point, Pharoah, may his name be erased, increased our work and limited our supplies; this forced us to use our own children as makeshift bricks to build his projects. Moshe pleaded for mercy from this heinous act and G-d saved one child, Micah, from the emperor’s cruelty.[4] Surely if the child saved by G-d led this incantation, Aharon’s efforts would produce our new channel to G-d, I thought. Suddenly, a golden calf emerged from the oven! It hopped onto the ground and began eating grass.[5]

“This is your elokim who brought you up from Egypt!” the Ereiv Rav declared. Aharon built an altar and informed us that the next day we would celebrate with G-d.[6]

We arose early, excited to praise G-d in the presence of our new spiritual pipeline. Micah’s posse led the festivities offering sacrificial olot and shelamim, parts of which we ate during our celebratory feast. Some of us got carried away in the joy, and when Hur son of Calev tried to prevent us from serving our new leader, a few partiers put an end to him.[7][8]

Something did not seem right to me. How could we kill a man even if he did not see eye to eye with our joy? My thoughts continued to wander: And where, in fact, was Moshe? Could he really have passed away atop the mountain? Why would G-d do that to his trusted leader and how could we celebrate considering his loss? I hoped he had not died.

I pulled myself together, raised up my head and began to return to the – Who is that descending the mountain? The silhouette figure came closer and closer until I could see – Moshe! Our leader had returned!

The dancing nation froze. Moshe stood by the foot of the mountain, Luchot in hand. The letters on the Luchot jumped off the stone tablets and floated back to heaven. Moshe struggled to bear its weight and he threw the Luchot to the ground, shattering it to pieces.[9] No one had time to react. Party turned to gloom and before we could think, Moshe took the golden calf, burned it in fire and ground it into tiny pieces. He sprinkled its particles in water and forced us to drink the mixture.

People to my right and left collapsed dead as they drank.[10] Those who remained alive stood still in shock as Moshe spoke a few words with Aharon. He took leave of his brother and shouted a rally cry: “Whoever is for Hashem come to me!”

I ran towards him along with my brothers in the Tribe of Levi. But where was the rest of the nation? Was no one else dedicated to Hashem? We drew our swords as Moshe commanded and battled the rest of Bnei Yisrael. A total of 3,000 causalities were seen that day.[11]

The next day, Moshe addressed us as a nation. “You have sinned greatly! I shall ascend to Hashem – maybe I can bring atonement for your sin.”

We stood in awe of Moshe. He was a true leader. No matter how much we complained, he led us with a vision of certainty. When we stood at the Yam Suf, we complained, fearful that the Egyptians would defeat us.[12] When we came to Marah, we whined, surmising that we had nothing to drink but bitter waters.[13] When we arrived in Midbar Sin, we grumbled, thinking we had been better fed in Egypt.[14] And in all these instances Moshe eliminated our doubts and settled our grievances: Moshe split the Yam Suf freeing us from Egypt, threw a stick into water miraculously sweetening the bitter waters and presided over the manna that rained down from heaven. Despite all this, we failed to appreciate his kindnesses and replaced his golden leadership with a golden calf at the first opportunity.

Our lack of hakarat hatov led us to stand by as other members of Bnei Yisrael replaced Moshe with a golden calf. Moshe, however, intervened with G-d for our sake, saving us once again and leaving us, a nation of leaders,[15] with a golden rule of leadership – to lead one’s followers with unwavering commitment towards their ultimate good.

[1] Rashi 31:18

[2] See Gur Aryeh 32:1

[3] Rashi 32:2

[4] Sanhedrin 101b with Rashi

[5] Rashi 32:5

[6] See Rashi 32:5

[7] See Shemos Rabbah 41:7

[8] Rashi 32:6

[9] Yalkut 393

[10] Rashi 32:20

[11] Although not dedicated like the Leviim, the remnant of Bnei Yisrael were loyal to G-d and therefore were saved from the attacks; Ha’amek Davar.

[12] Shemos 14:9-12

[13] Shemos 15:22-24

[14] Shemos 16:1-3

[15] Rabbeinu Avraham ben Rambam Shemos 19:6

About the Author
Shlomo Deutsch is a Yeshiva student who often finds himself conversing with very different people. His typical morning could include: praying at the Kotel with a group of 'settlers', followed by listening to Mohammed, his former (long story) 17 year old Muslim friend, dream about his ‘right of return.’ He would then call the US to catch up with his Open Orthodox chavruta as he walks to Mea Shearim to learn with a friend from Lakewood. Shlomo listens to all these opinions and tries to make some sense of them here on his Times of Israel blog.
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