This week’s Torah reading teaches a strong lesson leadership.
Leadership failures occur for one of two reasons. The first often has to do with timing. The individual may read the situation incorrectly. He or she may move out too soon or too late and failure follows. Sometimes despite your best efforts, you fail and must turn to God to profit from your failure by learning the lesson contained therein.
The second reason leaders fail is internal. A leader can simply lack the courage necessary for successful leadership: the ability to avoid being a crowd-pleaser, the ability to say ‘No’ when everyone else is shouting ‘Yes’. That can be daunting, even terrifying. Crowds have a momentum of their own. To say ‘No’ whenever those around you are pressuring you to say ‘yes’ carries severe risk. You may lose your job, be publicly humiliated and in extreme cases, even lose your life. That is when courage is needed, and the lack thereof constitutes a moral failure of the worst kind.
That is precisely what we encounter in this week’s Torah reading. Moses had been up the mountain for forty days. The people got nervous. Had he died? Where was he? He was their connection with God, their mediator. This is how the Torah describes what happened next:
When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered round Aaron and said, ‘Come, make us a god who will go before us. As for this man Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’ Aaron answered them, ‘Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.’ So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and he fashioned it with a tool and made it into a molten calf. Then they said, ‘This is your god, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’ (Ex. 32:1-4)
Understandably,God became angry. Moses pleaded with Him to spare the people.
Coming down the mountain and seeing what happened, Moses smashed the tablets of the Torah which he had brought down with him, burned the idol, ground it to powder, mixed it with water and made the Israelites drink it.
Then he turned to Aaron his brother and his ‘deputy’ and said, “What have you done?”
“Do not be angry, my lord,” Aaron answered. “You know how prone these people are to evil. They said to me, ‘Make us a god who will go before us. As for this man Moses, who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’ So I told them, ‘Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.’ Then they gave me the gold and I threw it into the fire and out came this calf!” Exod. 32:22-24
Aaron blamed the people and denied responsibility for making the calf. It just ‘happened’, he claimed. This is the same kind of denial of responsibility we recall from the story of Adam and Eve. The man says, “It was the woman.” The woman says, “It was the serpent.” It happened. It wasn’t me. I was the victim not the perpetrator. Evasion of responsibility is a moral failure in anyone but especially in a leader.
It is curious that Aaron was not immediately punished. It wasn’t until years later when he and Moses spoke angrily against the people for their complaining that God declared, “Aaron with be gathered to his people. He will not enter the Land..” Num. 20:24
And it wasn’t until the last month of Moses’ life that he finally confessed a fact he’d kept from the people all those years: I feared the anger and wrath of the Lord, for he was angry enough with you to destroy you. But again the Lord listened to me. And the Lord was angry enough with Aaron to destroy him, but at that time I prayed for Aaron too. (Deut. 9:19-20)
According to Moses, God was so angry with Aaron for the sin of the golden calf that He was about to kill him, and would have done so had it not been for Moses’ prayer.
It is so easy to be critical of people who fail the leadership test when it involves opposing the crowd, defying the consensus, blocking the path the majority are intent on taking. The truth is that it is hard to oppose the mob. They can ignore you, remove you, even assassinate you.
Moses had a real mess on his hands! He destroyed the calf, then asked for support and his fellow Levites rose to the occasion. They killed the three thousand rebels who had instigated the whole thing. The Israelites at the foot of the mountain didn’t realize how close they had come to being utterly destroyed.
Mercifully, there is more than one kind of leadership. From a different perspective, Aaron is recognized as a man of peace, a quality dearly needed by a High Priest which was his calling. The priesthood involves following rules, not taking stands and swaying crowds. The fact that Aaron was not a leader in the same type as Moses does not mean that he was a total failure. It means that he was created for a different kind of role.
There are times when you need someone with the courage to stand against the crowd, but there are other times when a peacemaker is needed. Moses and Aaron were different types. Aaron failed when he was called on to be a Moses, but he became a great leader when he stood in his own calling. Aaron and Moses complemented each other. No one person can do everything.
In Tune with Torah this week = each person will be the happiest and most effective when operating in their own calling, according to the gifts and talents which God planted in them. To envy another’s position is ultimate folly. You wouldn’t succeed there if it’s not your place! Embrace your purpose and calling in life and respect the ‘other’. This is a key to unity in any body of people.