Parshas Ki Sisa
Moshe: The Perfect Leader
Moshe is absent from the people of Israel for forty days. This seems to
trigger a disastrous turn of events that results in the incident of the
Golden Calf. Why is Moshe’s absence such a cataclysmic event in the
evolving story of the constant and continuing backtracking of Israel from
its Sinai commitment? After all, every rabbi is entitled to a vacation away
from his flock.
The commentators to Torah over the centuries have long debated the issue of
the absence of Moshe and its connection to the sin of the Golden Calf. Many
saw it as a sign of immaturity on the part of the people, in thinking that
Moshe was their security blanket and that they could not serve God without
his help and intervention. Others interpreted Moshe’s absence as a
separation trauma in which Israel believed that Moshe, after being in Heaven
once already, so to speak, could not readjust to earthly existence and would
perhaps never return.
This would have signaled to the people that Torah and God’s commandments
were heavenly, other-world issues that could have no daily relevance to
their mortal existence upon earth. This is an idea that the Torah itself has
to constantly counteract – that the Torah is not in Heaven and it is not for
Heaven. It is for humans and intended to direct us in our earthly existence.
The rabbis taught us in the Talmud that the Torah was not given to celestial
angels. It was given to fragile, vulnerable, sinful human beings.
Moshe is not blamed for his absence. After all, he followed God’s
commandment to remain on the summit of Mount Sinai after the granting of the
Torah to Israel. He certainly cannot be faulted for obeying the commands of
the Lord. Yet his absence seems to be a contributing factor in the grievous
sin of the Golden Calf.
I think that Moshe’s absence, which after all was occasioned by a command
from God, was not really the main problem that troubled the Jewish people.
Rather, it was the choice of Aharon and Chur to replace him that proved
troubling, as events later proved. Chur was too strong a person and, in his
confrontation with the people, was killed. Aharon was too accommodating and
compassionate a person and in his goodness and identification with the
people and their demands he contributed to the sin of the Golden Calf.
Moshe was the perfect blend of strength and compassion. The rabbis
criticized King Saul for being too strong on one occasion and too weak and
compromising in another situation. A leader must encompass within one’s
personality both strength and compassion, firmness and the ability to
compromise. The greatness of a leader is determined by the ability to be
firm when necessary and accommodating when that occasion arises.
Moshe was and is the prime example of such leadership qualities. He fights a
civil war against the architects of the Golden Calf and at the same time
pleads the case for forgiveness of the Jewish people from God. It is the
absence of such a perfectly balanced personality, which can destroy the
leader of a people.
Rabbi Berel Wein