This week’s torah reading (Ki Tissa, Exodus 30:11-34:35) teaches us important lessons about the traditional Jewish value of preserving the stability and peace of the community, and about what kind of leadership is needed to that end.
Coincidentally, this year’s Summit Conference theme will be “imagining a more civil society.” It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Jewish tradition is a rich source of thought on how to achieve the goals we’ll talk about in Washington on March 24-26.
To set the stage for this week’s reading, we’re now in the last third of the Book of Exodus. We are several weeks past reading about Revelation at Mount Sinai, and in recent weeks, we’ve been focusing on the construction of the Tabernacle (the portable shrine housing the Ark of the Covenant).
These technical details are now interrupted by a return to biblical narrative. What follows is familiar to all fans of the movie version of The Ten Commandments: Moses is given the tablets, he descends from Mount Sinai and sees the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf. He smashes the tablets, the evil doers are punished, and the faithful are saved.
Just before Moses comes down from the mountaintop, the text informs us (Exodus 32:1) that many of the Israelites had become nervous when Moses failed to return. They insisted that Aaron, Moses’ brother - who was left in charge while Moses was away - fashion an idol for them to worship. At first, Aaron seeks delay: he tells them to come back the next day and he asks them to bring their gold and jewels (assuming a natural reluctance to part with their treasures). But these tactics fail to work, and Aaron winds up helping to make the Golden Calf.
Some traditional commentators, trying to find something positive in Aaron’s actions, focus on Aaron’s effort to delay until Moses could return. Others simply state that this was a terrible failure of leadership by Aaron, who could not stick to his principles and instead gave himself over to the power of the mob. For Jewish professionals, Aaron’s role in these events is interesting, if not intriguing.
Here’s the connection between this week’s reading and the upcoming Summit: Aaron utilized a form of conflict management to maintain his society and prevent the disintegration of the People into warring factions. He engaged in conflict prevention, because the preservation of peace was his most important goal. He did not confront the people who demanded an idol; instead, he eventually accepted their demands. He believed that open conflict would have been catastrophic for the community as a whole, and he chose what he perceived to be the lesser of two evils: it was better to make an idol than to see the community dissolve. His attempts to delay failed, and when these efforts failed, he went along. Why?
This was an example of the traditional Jewish value of “mipnei darchei shalom” - acceptance of an undesirable practice in order to avoid conflict in the community. It is also an example of shalom bayit – the imperative to maintain peace in the house. Perhaps this is one reason why Aaron is not only forgiven for his participation in the events of the Golden Calf, but he and his descendants are rewarded with the hereditary high priesthood. Our tradition goes a long way to stress the importance of maintaining communal peace!
From another perspective, Aaron’s role in the story of the Golden Calf raises questions about leadership. Should a leader always reconcile differences within the community, or is there room for creative differences? Is every principle subject to compromise, or are there limits to what one is willing to abandon? Is avoiding confrontation always the correct path, or is confrontation sometimes necessary? Aaron’s role in this story teaches us the essence of the art of leadership: knowing when to reconcile, when to compromise, and when to confront.
Prepared by Gary Simms, director of administration at the Schusterman International Center.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Parshat Ki Tissa at MyJewishLearning.com.