From the Head of Jewish Life (Acting)
The Golden Calf and UN Global Goal #16
(Shemot/Exodus, Chapter 32)
Moshe is on Mount Sinai learning the complexities of the Torah with God and has been gone for too long – or that is what the B’nei Yisrael (the Jewish People) believe. They feel lost without their leader, Moshe, and seem to be uncertain about this new, invisible God who brought them out of Egypt following generations of slavery. Perhaps Moshe is dead? Perhaps this new God has forsaken them? The Jews begin railing against Aaron, demanding a replacement God! Perhaps they wish for a god they can see and touch, as they were used to from Egypt?
What would you expect Aaron to do here?
Strangely, Aaron does not try to dissuade them. Instead, he asks them to bring him their golden earrings, which they do without hesitation.
“This he took from them and cast in a mold fashioned it with a graving tool 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!”
When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron announced: “Tomorrow shall be a festival of Ad-o-nai!” (Shemot 32:4-5).
Aaron has shared the burden of leadership with his brother from as far back as their first meeting with the Jewish Elders and then Pharaoh. He is a vital part of leading the Jewish People in the desert and the first ever Kohen Gadol, High Priest, as chosen by God!
What was Aaron thinking?!
Jewish commentators throughout history have tried to mitigate or minimise what Aaron did, leaning on the fact that there is no specific related punishment mentioned for him. Later tradition even makes Aaron a hero, famously expressed by Rabbi Hillel in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:12)
. הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי מִתַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל אַהֲרֹן, אוֹהֵב שָׁלוֹם וְרוֹדֵף שָׁלוֹם, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת וּמְקָרְבָן לַתּוֹרָה
“Hillel used to say: be one of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind and drawing them close to the Torah.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l, has a fascinating take on this incident and Rabbi Hillel’s statement, that helps us understand effective leadership.
Moshe is known to be a man of legislation, truth, law and justice; Aaron a man of arbitration, peace and conflict resolution. Moshe deals in zero-sum equations; “This is right and that is wrong”, “x cannot equal y”; in his uniquely intimate relationship with God, he is distanced from the people.
Aaron has the people-skills; he believes in conciliation and compromise; in both sides feeling heard – in a non-zero outcome.
Back to the Golden Calf: God and Moshe see this as a grave sin, but Aaron, the arbitrator, saw it as not being the worst option at that time – the compromise that would keep the people from graver sins. They probably needed Moshe the leader at that time, but they had Aaron, and this is what he believed was needed in that moment.
They needed – and we need – both a Moshe and an Aaron. Leadership cannot be only about peace and peace-making, (with only that mindset, Aaron makes a Golden Calf) but it must also not be founded only on Truth and Justice – the cold calculation of Law. The great leader Moshe needed an Aaron to hold the people together.
Great leadership is best achieved in collaboration, in balance, the teamwork of Moshe and Aaron. Today, the United Nations have realised this in their visionary UN Global Goals; Goal 16 is exactly that; “Peace and Justice Strong Institutions”.
A voice for truth and a force for peace.