Parshat Ki Tisa: What is good leadership?
In this parsha, we find the story of the Golden Calf and Aaron’s role in its construction. Moses has been at the top of Mount Sinai receiving the Torah for a long time, and the Israelites are starting to get nervous.
They want protection and reassurance, so they pressure Moses’ brother, Aaron, whom Moses has left in charge, to build an idol for them to worship. Aaron capitulates, and tells the Israelites to bring him their gold, from which he fashions the Golden Calf. Interestingly, the next thing Aaron does is build an altar to God in front of the calf, and proclaim that the next day will be “a festival to God.”
What can we make of Aaron’s behavior in this story? On the one hand, he helps the Israelites to construct a forbidden idol of a false god; on the other hand, he also creates an altar to the true God of Israel right in front of it. He seems to be simultaneously giving in to the people’s worst instincts and trying to guide them to do better. W. Gunther Plaut in his commentary on the Torah notes that one can reasonably view Aaron as a willing collaborator in the building of the Golden Calf, but rabbinic tradition generally tries to paint him as more of a victim, doing what he must in order to satisfy an angry mob. Which perspective on Aaron is right?
The answer may be: both. Aaron is at once a great leader and a terrible one. In creating the Golden Calf, Aaron not only appeases the Israelites, but successfully brings them together as they struggle to understand why Moses has not returned as promised. The problem, however, is that he has brought them together for sin. He tries to make up for his wrongdoing by building an altar and instituting a festival to God, but it may be too little too late. Rather than having a vision for leading the people, he seems to be reacting to their whims and making things up as he goes along.
We learn from Parshat Ki Tisa that leading is not just about engaging people and bringing them together. In order to lead, one must lead people in the right direction. Real leadership can mean making people happy, but it can also mean challenging them, and even disappointing them. Real leadership must serve a higher purpose or ideal. One could argue that Aaron did the best he could under the circumstances, and that he tried to push the people in the right direction after the fact, attempting to rechannel their energy toward a positive end. Yet, one could also argue that Aaron failed the Israelites by allowing their anxiety to win out over what he knew to be true and right.
The difference between Aaron and us today, of course, is that Aaron knew for certain precisely what God wanted, whereas things for us are not so clear. As we strive to lead today, we must be prepared both to serve our ideals and to question them, to constantly ask ourselves what is true and right as we work to move forward.
Richard Newman is a cantor with Congregation Sinai in Fox Point.