Friday, March 1, 2024 / 21 Adar 1 5784

Shalom Chaverim,

The following commentary on Parashat Ki Tissa from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z”l, raises some profound questions about leadership. Although the discussion is about Aaron and his role in the people’s making a Golden Calf and committing the sin of idolatry, Rabbi Sacks is really suggesting we examine the behavior of our own leaders and our own selves as leaders.

Apply the insights about leadership that Rabbi Sacks gleans from these comments on the Torah portion to our leaders who have to make some incredibly difficult choices during the extreme times we are living through. How might any of our leaders in the US or in Israel benefit from taking to heart a lesson or two from this Torah commentary? From the personae of Moses and of Aaron in this story? Aside from some sympathy – perhaps – for our leaders navigating treacherous political and principled territory, what values and principles would you demand our leaders uphold? What are the ‘red lines’ no leader should be willing to cross? How do you prioritize issues of principle in relation to expediency, short-term losses versus long-term gains, sacrificing much for the hour’s critical need when that heavy price will ultimately have to be painfully repaid?

Ki Tissa includes one of the most shocking moments of the forty years in the wilderness. Within six weeks of their encounter with God at Har Sinai, Bnei Yisrael make a Golden Calf. Either this was idolatry or perilously close to it, and it causes God to say to Moshe that He will unleash His full wrath on the people.

At the center of the story is Aharon, leader of the people in the absence of Moshe. It was Aharon whom Bnei Yisrael approached with their proposal to build an idol, and it was Aharon who should have seen the danger of such a request and stopped Bnei Yisrael. Instead, Aharon helped craft the Golden Calf from the people’s gold jewelry, and then proclaimed a festival to the Lord.

What was in Aharon’s mind while this drama was being enacted? The Midrash and Zohar believe he was buying time for Moshe’s return; the Talmud suggests he was choosing the lesser of two evils, so the people wouldn’t rebel entirely. Ibn Ezra offers that Aharon viewed the Calf as a temporary substitute for Moses, not as an idol. All the commentators seem to be trying to understand his actions and mitigate his guilt – which fits with the fact that the Torah never explicitly states that Aharon was punished for chet ha’egel (the sin of the Golden Calf). It is, however, difficult to see Aharon as anything but weak, especially when Moshe finally appears and demands an explanation: Aharon’s response? That the people made him do it. Deflecting accountability is weakness, not leadership.

And yet, later tradition made Aharon a hero, celebrating his peace-making nature! Then there is the famous Talmudic discussion as to whether arbitration, as opposed to litigation, is a good thing or a bad thing. The Talmud supports this by citing a conflict between two role-models, Moshe and Aharon.

Moshe was a man of law, Aharon of mediation. Moshe was a man of truth, Aharon was a man of peace. Moshe sought justice, and Aharon sought conflict resolution.

There is a fundamental difference between these two approaches. Truth, justice, law: these are zero-sum equations. Mediation, conflict resolution, compromise, and the Aharon-type virtues are all attempts to allow both sides feel that they have been heard and their claim has, at least in part, been honored. Let’s go back to Moshe, Aharon, and the Golden Calf. Although it is clear that God and Moshe regarded the Calf as a major sin, Aharon’s willingness to appease the people – sensing that if he simply said “No”, they would kill him and make it anyway – was not entirely wrong. To be clear, at that moment, the people needed a Moshe, not an Aharon. But in the long run, they needed both. Moshe as the voice of truth and justice, and Aharon with the people-skills to conciliate and make peace.

That is how Aharon eventually emerged, in the long hindsight of tradition, as the peace-maker. Peace is not the only virtue, and peacemaking is not the only task of leadership. Yes, the people made a Golden Calf when Aharon was left to lead. But never think that a passion for truth and justice is sufficient. Moshe needed an Aharon to hold the people together. In short, leadership is the capacity to hold together different temperaments, conflicting voices and clashing values. Every leadership team needs both a Moshe and an Aharon, a voice of truth and a force for peace.

Are there leaders today who are either a voice of truth or a force for peace? How do we enable them to be either, or both? What duty do we, as citizens, have for holding our leaders and our fellow citizens to account for all that is going right and for all that is going wrong?


Rabbi Michael Schwartz