Exodus 30:11 – 34:35
It’s easy to blame the Israelites.
They witnessed how God brought them out of Egypt with ten mighty Plagues, they walked on the dry land through the sea that was parted. They stood at the base of Mount Sinai amid peals of thunder and heard God speak from the mountain.
So, when Moses was up on the mountain, within the Cloud of Glory, receiving the Ten Commandments directly from God, how could they surround Aaron and demand that he build a Golden Calf?
The Israelites clearly should not have built an idol anywhere, let alone at the base of Mount Sinai. Yet, they are not the only ones who made a mistake in this story.
We, the readers, know what Moses has been up to. We know that for forty days he was in sublime encounter with God, meeting God face to face as no other mortal ever can.
The Israelites, however, know none of this. They saw Moses climb the mountain and enter the cloud. They counted the days -- and Moses did not reemerge. Thirty-nine days they waited before the panic set in. What if Moses was not coming back? What would they do? Who would lead them? Where would they go?
Thirty-nine days is a long time to wait, even if we are not in the Wilderness. How many of us would have been so patient?
It is easy to blame the Israelites, yet they are not the only ones who made a mistake.
The story of the Golden Calf, among other things, offers a remarkable insight into leadership. Moses, as God’s representative, is tasked to bring the Israelites from a life of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land where they can live as free men and women under God’s Torah. This is a tall order!
To succeed, Moses must ‘sell’ the Israelite slaves a new vision for what can be, and once God sets them free, must then lead them to their new homes. The ‘sell’ is not overwhelmingly difficult – when we suffer as slaves the offer of freedom appeals! The actual journey is not long – assuming we can travel in a straight line.
Where then is the problem? Most of the territory that must be traversed is not physical, but psychological and spiritual. When the only thing the people have known is centuries of slavery in an idolatrous country, how could they simply adopt a radically new way of life? Change, especially massive change, is both difficult and scary – even when we understand the need for change.
The Israelites were willing to accept Moses as their leader. They were willing to follow him into the Wilderness. They were amazed and awed by the miracles they experienced, but they were not ready to stand on their own.
They were not strong enough to simply wait at the base of the mountain. Their faith in God had not developed yet, despite the wonders and miracles that they witnessed. The idea of God was too new, the reality of freedom too foreign and they had no idea how long Moses would be away.
What could Moses have done differently? He could not give them faith. He could not make them less afraid. He could not make them more patient. Just as the people have much to learn, so too Moses. At this early juncture, he did not understand the importance of information. Thirty-nine days earlier, when he ascended into the cloud he did not say anything about how long he would be away.
We might argue that he did not know how long he would be, and that is probably true. Yet even sharing that little tidbit might have helped. The Israelites needed to know that he was not in danger, that they should wait however long it took, that everything would be ok. Without that, they held on as long as they could – and it was not long enough.
Moses grew to become the greatest leader our people ever knew, and he learned from his mistakes. We should as well.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras