This week's parsha is Ki Tissa, and in it we read one of the more painful episodes of the experiences of the Israelites during their travel through the desert. It is the incident of the Golden Calf. Moshe has been on the top of Mount Sinai for 40 days. The Israelites miscalculated the timing of his return and are concerned when he doesn't appear on the day they expect. They react by going to Aaron, who has been left in charge. Aaron requests gold from the people and throws it into the fire from which emerges a golden calf.
Whether or not this was actual idolatry is not clear. A simple reading of the Torah text makes it appear that idolatry did in fact take place. Most of the commentators say that the Golden Calf was to replace Moshe so that there was no mass sin of worshiping an idol. Even if this Golden Calf did become the object of idolatry it was done so only by a very small minority of Jews and those that did worship it were the Eirev Rav, the Egyptian rabble that joined the Israelites when they came out from Egypt. Moshe is furious when he descends the mountain and discovers the Golden Calf. He throws it back into the fire, grinds it into powder, sprinkles the powder into water and forces the Israelites to drink the mixture. The question that is raised here is why was there a lack of leadership that caused this incident to take place?
When confronted by Moshe about the incident, Aaron denies responsibility. Instead he blames the Israelites. "Don't be angry, my lord," says Aaron, continuing "You know how prone these people are to evil . . . they gave me their gold and I threw it into the fire and out came this calf." The interesting point is that Aaron is not punished for this incident. The punishment he received of not being allowed to enter the Land of Israel was due to both he and Moshe becoming angry at the people and hitting the rock when the people complained about a lack of water many years later. Later in Parshat Eikev Moshe tells the people that HaShem was angry enough with Aaron because of the Golden Calf to kill him, but Moshe's prayers prevented that. Indeed, Jewish tradition on the whole does not take Aaron to task for this incident.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, makes a very compelling point. He suggests that the problem was not so much a lack of leadership, but rather the wrong type of leader. Aaron is known as man of peace. Pirkei Avot teaches, "Be like students of Aaron, loving peace, pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them closer to Torah." If two people had a dispute Aaron is known as the one who would go to both and work to bring them back together. Aaron is considered a leader of the Jewish people, however in a different mold than his brother. Moshe is the one to stand up in front of the people, rallying them together at times, and standing against them at times. Aaron is among the people inspiring them from inside, making peace. Aaron's failure, writes Rabbi Sacks, was trying to be a Moshe. Only Moshe could be Moshe. Aaron was indeed a leader in his own right, but his leadership role, his leadership style, was different than Moshe's though no less important to leading the Israelites.
In any group, any organization, we need leadership. What is leadership? The answer may not be so clear, but what is clear is that there are different types of leaders. There are the leaders who stand up in front and rally the people. There are leaders who are quiet and influence from the inside. There are leaders who have the talent to do both. We never know what challenges we will face. We must have leaders who have vision, who have principles. We need leaders who are connected to people and who care about making their lives better. We need leaders who inspire. Then we can face those challenges that come our way and do things we can't even imagine. Moshe and Aaron were two such leaders, leading in different ways yet bringing the people to new heights.