Why is it that the Israelites turn so quickly to idolatry after having experienced God’s Presence at Sinai? This is the people who witnessed wonders and miracles in Egypt, as they fled from Egypt, and then at Sinai, where they experienced literally the greatest thing ever – God’s revelation to them – a revelation that clearly contains a prohibition against building graven images. How, then, is it that because Moses returns up the mountain and is away from the people for too long, the people ignore everything that they’ve heard – the Word of God through Moses – and start building an altar? They say that they build it because they do not know what has happened to Moses but that doesn’t seem to make sense. When a religious figure teaches something, their immediate absence doesn’t render what they say to be irrelevant – at least, as a Rabbi I feel like that has been a safe assumption in my work!
The most common explanation for their behavior is that, out of fear, they reverted to what they knew. The people had been in Egypt for hundreds of years and so they were exposed to Egyptian idolatry constantly. This explanation suggests that as soon as they feared that the new Israelite ways of worship were going to fail through Moses’ absence, they reverted back to idolatry. Indeed, in this opinion the mixed multitude who left Egypt with the people were clearly the basis for this return to idolatry. But this seems problematic for two reasons. Firstly, the Israelites had seen the Egyptian theological structures destroyed. The Ten Plagues were not just an attack on Egypt, they were an attack on Egypt’s gods like the Nile and the Sun. The Egyptians who remained did not just live in a land whose infrastructure had been destroyed, but also in a land whose deities had been totally humiliated. There should have been absolutely no appeal, then, to return to the theological practices of the Egyptians because they were shown to the Israelites to be worthless. The second reason this explanation is problematic is that when a religious leader doesn’t appear for a service, the laity who lead the service in their place don’t break into spontaneous idolatry! It’s not as though every time I take a vacation the rest of the congregation wheel out a sacred golden calf to worship! Or, I should say, if they do, they’ve done a very good job of hiding it! Instead, the people who attend services do what they can – the service goes on. Reflecting that back into our text, there seems to be no reason for the Israelites to suddenly create a golden calf in Moses’ absence.
So what leads them to do it? Another common explanation, similar to the first, focuses on fear. The Israelites panic without Moses to guide them. But just as before, panic doesn’t necessarily mean idolatry. The Israelites panicked at the Sea of Reeds, but they didn’t start worshipping idols – instead they turned to Moses who guides them. Here, with Moses absent, they could have just turned to Aaron instead.
But perhaps their reaction at the Sea and their reaction to Aaron here can help us. Earlier in the Book of Exodus, when the Israelites are trapped at the Sea of Reeds, the community’s reaction to Moses is anger. “Why did you bring us here to die?” they ask (Ex. 14:11-12). In other words, they actually have no faith in their leader. Similarly, here, the people don’t politely ask Aaron to build them an idol. The Hebrew tells us vayyikkahel ha’am al aharon – the people assembled against Aaron. This is why midrash has a number of stories explaining why Aaron gives in to their requests – he doesn’t agree with what they’re doing but he realises, according to midrash, that with Moses gone, the people will kill him if he doesn’t do what they say. Whereas Moses throughout Torah stands up to the people when they rebel, Aaron does not.
There is a profound difference between the leadership models of Moses and Aaron. Aaron gives the people what they want, Moses does not. Moses is combative and aloof in order to shepherd the people away from danger and to keep them in relationship with God. When Korach challenges Moses later in Torah, Moses doesn’t cave – he challenges. Aaron, on the other hand, when finally on his own, does not stand his ground. In differing moments when the Israelites risked returning to idolatry, Aaron’s response is to capitulate, while Moses’ response is either to fight or, importantly, to create something new to stop the Israelites from returning to old ways. For example, the people complain about being trapped at the Sea so Moses creates a new path for them, the people complain about lack of water so Moses strikes a rock to bring them water.
Moses’ leadership model is the stronger, but it is also flawed, even without superimposing it into a modern understanding of leadership. If the people are constantly reverting to idolatry and anger at their leader, it speaks not just of them but also of him, although I acknowledge that the relationship between the people and Moses is still relatively new. Nonetheless, even though by the end of Deuteronomy he has safely delivered the people to the land, he is not allowed to join them there and the people constantly revert to idolatry afterwards so in some sense he succeeds and in another he does not. Most importantly, Moses does not succeed in removing the temptation of idolatry from the people – indeed, it is only through acts of violence that Moses temporarily halts its spread among the people. I do appreciate that I may be setting Moses up to fail here because maybe the entire message of the Biblical narrative is that even a leader as great as Moses couldn’t remove idolatry from the people, so how could anyone else?
Nonetheless, there’s a reason that the people rebel in this week’s Torah portion and beyond, which is the model of leadership that Moses has embarked upon. His father-in-law Jethro has already warned him of the danger of centralization of leadership into one figure and yet that model of centralization continues, which is why Korach is able to inspire rebellion later with the words “the entire congregation are all holy and the Eternal One is in their midst, so why do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s assembly?” (Num. 16:3) Moses is too distant a leader to affect change in the people. He relies too heavily on the divine authority given to him, and he rallies the people with an almost identical hierarchical system. When he talks to them, it is with frustration at their failings, not with praise for their successes. He views them either as rebels (Num. 20:10) or as potential rebels, not with the gentleness that newly liberated slaves need. He demands too much, and as a result, they fail in his eyes, and he lets them know.
The episode of the golden calf is, in fact, terrifying. Three thousand people are put to the sword for their transgression. This is a slaughter the likes of which the people have never before witnessed by their own kind. There is nothing subtle about Moses’ message – obey or die. It almost makes me wonder if it was a set-up, if he expected some of the people to revert to idolatry during his extended absence and he hoped they might expose themselves in his absence so he could deal with them when he returned. In that reading, his response to Joshua saying that it is not the sound of battle he hears in the camp but the sound of blasphemy (Ex. 32:18) is not because he recognizes it, but because he expected it. Even if that’s not the case, Moses fails the people at Sinai. He has led from the top, the people are only just starting to form their sense of identity, and then he – the intermediary between the people and God – disappears. What else were they to do other than try to reach God through the means they knew? And when they do sin, he checks in with Aaron to ask why he allowed such a thing to happen, but he never checks in with the people to find out why they did it. Instead, he immediately assumes that they’re rebellious and punishes them accordingly. He serves as judge, jury and executioner, when he could have instead taken on the role of teacher or loving parent. Moses listens to the people only when he has to decide matters of law, and that is a cold, distant way to relate to people. There is no-one who gently guides the people, so they never really change their behavior.
So, what might we learn from this Torah portion of Ki Tissa? I learn that it doesn’t help the people for today’s religious leaders to be like Moses – aloof, filled with scorn and rebuke, assuming the worst of their community, ignoring their pre-existing behavior patterns and insisting on new ones brought down from on high. This week’s Torah portion reminds me that establishing communal praxis without communal buy-in is doomed to failure, even if it’s God Almighty who is setting that praxis. Moreover, this week’s Torah portion shows us the danger of confusing leadership with control, and how control becomes a self-perpetuating system that leads to rebellion as soon as control disappears. It shows us the problems that are caused by religious leaders being distant. It shows us that Moses, and indeed all religious leaders, work best when they are able to offer viable alternatives to whatever currently ails the community and it shows us that while sometimes we have to stand firm in the face of the mob, religious leaders have to do everything in their power to stop the mob from forming in the first place.
With all that in mind, may God guide our community as we continue to work together to create and implement a communal vision. May leaders and laity continue to support and strengthen each other, may we be forgiving of our mistakes, and may we continue to be creative whenever difficult times arrive. May such be God’s will, and let us say, Amen.