Leaders Are Made, Not Born! Ki Tissa 5778

Leaders Are Made, Not Born! 
Parashat Ki Tissa 16 Adar 5778
פרשת כי תשא ט"ז אדר תשע"ח
Exodus 30:11-34:35
Haftara (Prophets) 1 Kings 18:1-39

"A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don't necessarily want to go, but ought to be." —Rosalynn Carter



What makes a great leader and what is good leadership? We look to the Torah for role models. In this week's parashah, Ki Tissa, we read the account of the grave sin of the Israelites: the casting of the Golden Calf. This incident raises many questions, but the one I wish to raise is a question of leadership. Who is the true shepherd of the People? What positive and negative leadership traits do we find in Moses and Aaron? How do these qualities inform the decisions they made as leaders? We generally speak about and attribute the terrible sin of the Golden Calf to the Israelite People. But when a society

Adoring the Golden Calf   -  Raphael
gets out of control, should we not question its leadership? When the kids at the kindergarten are going meshuggah, who's responsible? It is not my intention to convict nor to vindicate either Moses or Aaron, but to look closely at the positive and negative character traits (that inform their decisions) of these two founding leaders of the Jewish People to see if we can gain an insight into what "great" leadership looks like. The prism through which I read the story reveals two leaders at opposite ends of the spectrum, one who is highly principled, even dogmatic and seemingly disconnected from the People; the other represents a popular type of leadership. He desires to be well-liked by the People and is willing to do whatever it takes to appease them. He gives them a lot of space, does little to keep them in order, but will not be held responsible for their actions! He does not seem to know  the word "no"! On the other hand, he is a Man of the People! He has his feet firmly planted on the ground, he understands where the People are at and is present with them, and tries to both accommodate the place in which they find themselves as well as placing the highest value of human relations, peace and peaceful ways above all else ["ohev
shalom, v'rodef shalom"]. Neither of these two types of leaders in their extreme forms may be ideal, being either too demanding, unreasonable and harsh on the one hand or  lacking clear vision and clear expectations for the masses [in relation to the execution of that vision] on the other. A word in way of a preface: we will stick closely to the original Torah text itself, since the commentaries (midrashim/parshanut) are working hard in order to vindicate our protagonists (Aaron specifically) and I want to read the story as closely as possible to its simple meaning for the sake of presenting these two forms of leadership. Before saying another word, let's take a look at the Torah text. 


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Shemot: Exodus Chapter 32  (1-6) [For full chapter with interlinear Hebrew/English translation, click here: https://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0232.htm





And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mount, the people gathered themselves וַיִּקָּהֵל together unto Aaron, and said to him: 'Rise, make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we don't know what has become of him.'

And Aaron said unto them: 'Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them to me.'

And all the people broke off the golden rings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron.
And he [Aaron] received it from their hand, and [He/Aaron] fashioned it with a graving tool, and made it a molten calf; and they [the People] said: 'This is your god, O Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt.'

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What is clear here is that the People are lacking leadership in Moses' absence. A clue to the lack of structure or formal leadership is evident in the word וַיִּקָּהֵל --[the masses] assemble around Aaron. It is they who initiate the gathering. This runs in stark contrast to the first word of the next parashah וַיַּקְהֵל where Moses assembles the people. Though the spelling is exactly the same, the vowels distinguish between the passive nifal (vayikahel) -- the nation became assembled -- and the active hifil form (vayakhel) --the leader assembled the People. Leadership must be active! By the time the leader finds him/herself reactive, it is too late! Aaron, the leader in this case, reacts poorly by essentially giving in to the demands of the People, organizing the project of the Golden Calf and executing it himself! Sad as this may be, Aaron, as many of our leaders today, sees his leadership role as organizing the will of the People rather than holding them to a higher standard. Now, before going any further, let us inquire, what about Moses? We may understand the need to "be away from the office" for 40 days in order to be with God and receive the Tablets of the Covenant, but what about his harsh reaction towards the People after leaving them alone for all that time? While his pleas before God to withhold His anger and not destroy the Children of Israel when God informs Moses of what they have done serves to inspire us, his own actions upon returning from the mountain to the People raise an eyebrow! We remember that Moses threw the tablets and broke them, but did you remember that he ground up the Golden Calf and made
Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law (1659)
Rembrandt
the people drink it?! Not only that, Moses gathers the support of all those "on God's side" (the Levites) and they go through the camp slaying 3,000 men!











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Exodus 32:20
And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it with fire, and ground it to powder, and strewed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it!




Exodus 32: 26-28
...then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said: 'Whoever is on God's side, let him come unto me.' And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him.

Moses Commanding the Levites at the Golden Calf
'Compendium of Chronicles' by Persian-Jewish sage Rashid-al-Din (1247-1308)
And he said unto them: 'Thus saith the Lord, the God of Israel: Put every man his sword upon his thigh, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour.'

And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses; and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men.

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This is a very difficult section; despite the gravity of their sin, we are talking about people who have been slaves for their entire lives and are now expected to know what to do and how to handle the freedom for which they have been longing for a very long time. They finally get their freedom and have two competing or even contradictory desires. One, is to be free of all oppressive authority of Egypt, while the other is to have a distinct authority that will now lead them!? What might we expect from such an oppressed and enslaved people? How could Moses, their spiritual and political leader, leave them without any authority? It is even more perplexing, since Moses goes away for 40 days in order to bring back concrete laws (boundaries) by which they are meant to live!? Moses exhibits a very common problem with leadership. He has unreasonable expectations of the people whom he is leading, does not supervise them (leaves them to do as they please) and then reacts with great anger and judgment when they don't do as he expects! You might ask, how could Moses know that Aaron would not stand in his place properly? He expected Aaron to keep order! It is interesting that although the commentators and midrash bend over backwards to justify Aaron's building of the calf (the most common excuse is that he was using delaying tactics because he knew Moses would soon be back). Of course, when things go awry, someone must be responsible. "And Moses said unto Aaron: "What did this people do to you, that thou have brought a great sin upon them?" (Exodus 32:21). Moses implies that Aaron is responsible and the text even states that "Aaron had let them get out of control"! Does Aaron accept responsibility? He replies, "you know the people, that they are set on evil!" (32:22). Leadership is not about authority, it is about responsibility. Leaders who blame those lower down on the totem pole are not exercising true leadership. One very important trait for a leader is that they can help their people move past the crisis, past the shame and the brokenness, and inspire penitent feelings so that they can move on.

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Exodus 32:32-32
And Moses returned to God, and said:"Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them a god of gold.

Yet now, [decide] if You will forgive their sin--; and if not, blot me [erase my name], I beg you, out of your book which you have written."



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Moses is not in it for the glory, he is even willing to stand up to the Holy One for the sake of the People. He is not trying to get his name into the history books, he wants what is best for the flock. Don't get me wrong, I don't think that Moses is perfect and that Aaron is a terrible leader. Aaron exhibits the traits of a popular, well-liked liberal leader who is willing to give his People what they want, he understands them, he is close to them, wants to appease them and make them happy and keep the peace. Moses, on the other hand, exhibits the qualities of an idealist, a dominant and forceful authority, who demands obedience and delves harsh punishment, all the while being relatively disconnected from the masses. His leadership style is threatening and instigates violence, but ultimately leads the people forward. Which is better? In my opinion --neither. A leader has to be close enough to the People to understand them in order to lead them, but not so close that they cannot maintain enough authority to help them.  Rosalynn Carter says that leaders take people where they want to go! A leader understands where the people are at (unlike Moses) and leads them according to that reality. But a great leader has a vision of where they need to go. This is a leader who takes People to a place where they don't necessarily want to go, but ought to go. To be a great leader, you must first be a leader. For all that is great about Moses, his People died in the wilderness and never made it to the promised land. I believe that the message for us is that a great leader demonstrates the right balance between the traits of Moses and of Aaron (perhaps tilting just a bit towards Moses' less accommodating, but highly principled and selfless style).


We could apply this lesson in leadership to our government leaders or even to our own lives, but I would like to conclude by applying it to our Jewish future. There seem to be two inclinations in Jewish leadership today: one is to be endlessly accommodating, meeting people exactly where they are and demanding nothing more of them. The other is to be so demanding of people that it literally repels them from their beautiful ancient tradition and faith. I believe that both of these ways are misguided. It does not matter to me which community, stream or movement you belong to; great leadership meets people where they are, understands their reality, lives closely with them, all the while having enough conviction about the call of the Jewish faith to lead them to where they don't necessarily want to be (right now), but both ought to be and, I believe, will find that they do want to be in places they never imagined. 

Australian Shepherd
religious / spiritual leader is sometimes referred to as a shepherd. It is not happenstance that Moses goes from being a prince of Egypt to being a shepherd of sheep in Midian. He is even shepherding the flock when he meets God at the burning bush! All of this is a sneak preview to his true calling -- shepherding the Children of Israel. But how does a shepherd lead the sheep? One would imagine that s/he leads from the front of the flock/herd, but the shepherd actually leads from the rear, while the shepherd dogs maintain the boundaries for the "procession." Think about how this can be a model for us? The video clip below of a mesmerizing mass sheep herding so beautifully gives us a picture of what this might look like.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tDQw21ntR64

FOR YOU TO CONTEMPLATE:

What kind of situations have you found yourselves in where you needed to take a leadership role and how would characterize your leadership style in that situation?

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Shabbat Shalom and Happy Purim,
Rabbi Yonatan







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