Parshat Ki Tisa

Torah Reading for Week of February 13 – February 19, 2011

“The Aftermath: Loss and Horror”

by Dr. Tamar Frankiel, AJRCA Dean of Academic Affairs and Professor of Comparative Religion

In the drama of the golden calf episode, what is seldom noticed is a change in Moshe’s relationship to the Jewish people. Before the calf, his accomplishments in Egypt had shown him to be a master of mysteries, a powerful force in confronting Pharaoh. Once across the Sea of Reeds, his restive followers had started to complain. But up to this point, Moshe seems a popular leader who has risen up to guide the people for their benefit. What is his power? He can do magic, and G-d apparently talks to him.

After the golden calf, and after Moshe has been on the mountain with G-d asking for forgiveness, things have changed. From G-d’s point of view, Moshe has definitively thrown in his lot with the Jewish people: “Erase me from Your book” if G-d will not forgive them. But to the people, he comes down from the mountain transformed. A strange light radiates from his face. When he goes into his private tent of meeting, a cloud appears at the entrance. People gaze at him from the entrances to their own tents, and prostrate themselves. On their part, they have had to remove their “ornaments” – a mysterious accessory they had acquired at Sinai. The distance between Moshe and the people has widened.

We have here a paradigm for the evolution of religious leadership. The grass-roots leader comes to the fore because s/he possesses special talents. When the community goes through crisis, the leader who resolves it acquires an aura that creates both admiration and distance. Weber called this charisma, recognizing the mystery of a spiritual gift while noting that it was cemented sociologically.

The charismatic qualities of religious leadership are the surface level of a certain expertise, an unusual ability to relate to power, whether human or beyond-human. These qualities vary in different cultures. Changing staffs into snakes would not go very far to demonstrate expertise today. Disappearing into a cloud on a mountain would more likely produce calls to 911 than cries of awe. Our criteria are different; we look for wisdom, serenity, the ability to change others’ lives for the better, and the ability–like Moshe—to stand up to the powers-that-be in the name of something higher.

Nevertheless, just as in ancient times, the very qualities that make a person stand out also create distance and even suspicion. (Our ancestors called this the ‘evil eye.’) In a democratic society like ours, religious leadership is suspect for that very reason. In matters of religion, we have been taught to think that everyone is entitled to his own opinion and one is just as good as another. Religious leaders are suspected of having ulterior motives or of manipulating people by their power over them.

Look closely at our story, though. What happened to the congregation of Israel teaches us something different. The people not only saw Moshe differently, but they had lost their “finery.” The ornaments which represented their glory, their connection with G-d at Sinai, were gone. Why? Because they had sinned – had been disloyal to Moshe, and broken the first two commandments. Moshe had made atonement for them, G-d had agreed to continue to lead them but they were still alienated. Their own self-perception had changed as much as he.

Moshe would have wanted it different. “Would that all the people were prophets!” he had once declared. Yet the people seem to have stayed away from him after the calf. What they had not learned was that, even after shame and embarrassment, we have to stand up again. Would that all of them had not merely shown him kavod, honor, from a distance, but shown it even more by going to his tent and sitting at his feet to learn, like Joshua.

Moshe had an advantage – that uncanny light issuing from his face. Our rabbis, cantors, and chaplains don’t usually have halos. Do we have enough kavod for our leaders? Or do we often rush to criticize instead of examining themselves?

Let us take this lesson to ourselves, and go to “sit at their feet” – seeking the teachings of wisdom, courage and transformation from our leaders today.

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