Exodus 30:11 – 34:35
Moses was the greatest leader of Israel ever – past, present and future. The Torah says so, and also the sages. Yet, he did not work alone. The Exodus story highlights two Israelite leaders, each with their own very different leadership styles. Moses was the ‘political’ leader and prophet, driven by passion and spurred to action by his sense of injustice and outrage. As a prince in Egypt he killed an Egyptian taskmaster for beating an Israelite slave. As an agent of God, he confronted Pharaoh (albeit with fear and trepidation at first) demanding that the Israelites be set free. And in this week’s parasha he defended the Israelites before God because God was going to destroy them over the Golden Calf; then, when he finally saw the Calf himself, he ordered the immediate execution of 3000 ringleaders.
Aaron, Moses’ brother, was a very different kind of leader and was tapped to be the High Priest. The role of the priest was to serve as the great connector between Israel and God, to bring the Israelites closer to God through the sacrificial rites. He was well suited to this task because Aaron always sought ways to end conflict and create peace. According to tradition, whenever Aaron heard two people arguing he would go to each of them and tell them how much the other regretted his actions, so that each thought the other was ready to apologize. Then, when they finally met, they were able to see each other as friends.
In this week’s portion, Ki Tissa, Aaron takes his pursuit of peace to its logical extreme. Moses has gone up the mountain to receive the tablets and has been gone for over a month with no word. The people become agitated and afraid, and they gather against Aaron saying:
“Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him.” [Ex. 32:1]
Aaron does not argue against them, and to be fair, may have felt threatened for his very life. Instead he instructs them to bring gold, and then uses their gold to make the Calf.
The great Rabbi Hillel was well versed with the leadership styles of both Moses and Aaron. He knew that Moses was the greatest Jewish leader ever to be, and he knew that Aaron built the Golden Calf in a moment of weakness, yet he taught:
“Be a disciple of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them closer to Torah.” [Pirke Avot 1:12]
To be clear, Hillel was not suggesting we do whatever we are told, especially when it comes to building idols. Rather, Hillel understood that conflict and confrontation do not bring people to Torah. Hillel is compared over and again to one of his great contemporaries, Shammai. Shammai was more like Moses, passionate about his principles and quick to anger when they were violated. Hillel, on the other hand, took a softer approach, refusing to lose his temper and patiently meeting people where they were, using their own logic and methodologies to bring them to Torah.
As a pedagogic approach, this makes great sense. But what about as a model for political leadership? Given the reality of our turbulent world, Rabbi Mark Greenspan asks: “Should we be disciples of Aaron?” It is a fair question.
Hillel lived under Roman rule after the fall of Jerusalem (but before the destruction of the Temple), when Jews lived or died at the mercy of their conquerors. He understood that to confront the Romans directly was suicide, and so in that sense he sought peace over conflict. For two-thousand years of exile our people did the same – seeking peace rather than conflict in the many lands where we lived. Yet, Hillel had his limits. He would not give up the study or teaching of Torah – not even if it were to put his life at risk. For Hillel the pursuit of peace was the best available approach in the service of a higher purpose, but it did not supplant that purpose.
In the Exodus we needed both Moses and Aaron. Under the Romans we needed both Hillel and Shammai, and many others like them. Our tradition teaches us to pursue peace whenever possible, but also to hold true to our values and our covenant with God. The difficult part is to know when we should be more like Moses and when more like Aaron, and to remember to keep the wisdom and values of our tradition front and center when our emotions rise. In the end Rabbi Greenspan turns to the Psalms for guidance, and so should we:
“Adonai oz l’amo yiten; Adonai yivarech et amo bashalom. May God grant strength to our people. May God bless our people with peace.” [Psalm 29:11]
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