Ki Tissa: What Makes a Leader a Leader?

Ki Tissa: What Makes a Leader a Leader?

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

The Torah sequence we read last week concerned the artistry and exacting specificity involved in the building of the Tabernacle. Intended to be a microcosm of the cosmos, it also became a uniting community project. I find it hard to admit that I am getting a little older, but as I read various commentaries this week in preparation for my own take on this week’s parsha, Ki Tissa, which means “when you add up”) I fell in love with a midrash that gave me great comfort:

“During his forty days and nights on Mount Sinai, Moses learned much but kept forgetting what he learned. Said he in despair: ‘I know nothing!’ Therefore God gave him the Torah as a gift. Could Moses indeed have learned the whole Torah – of which it is said that it is ‘longer than the earth and broader than the sea’ (Job 11:9). No, therefore God taught him only the principles (and hence gave him the tablets” [1].

Yes, it’s a good thing to have ten commandments on two tablets that simplify principles teaching us how to come close to God by leading a moral life. However, as Richard Elliott Friedman points out, sometimes the overwhelming intimacy of that closeness to God causes people to pull away, to rebel. “It is when God is closest that humans commit the greatest sin,” Friedman claims [2].

It is also true that when that intimacy – in this case, divine intimacy — recedes, humans may become fearful, try to find a substitute to fill the vacuum. That is what happens in Ki Tissa when Moses leaves the ancient Hebrews in the desert at the foot of the mountain and spends 40 days at the top coming close to God, even dangerously close to God. When he finally descends with the two tablets of the commandments for the people, his face is radiant. He glows with the light of God.

Unfortunately, without their leader for so long, the Hebrew people had become fearful. They needed a protector. With the reluctant help of Aaron, Moses’ brother and second-in-command, they constructed a Golden Calf, made with the donated, melted-down, golden earrings of the people. “All the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears” (Exodus 32:3). This golden creature of their own manufacture simplified the idea of God for the people, kept the Divine close because they could see it. The artist Bezalel had so recently shown them how to construct a Tabernacle so that the Holy Spirit could dwell within. Now, through the agency of Aaron, a peaceful man who was afraid of confrontation, the people made a calf, an imitation of the cultic worship of the bull, symbolizing fertility and strength to the pagan Canaanites. For the Hebrews, in the absence of their leader, Moses, the Golden Calf would be a vessel holding the spirit of El, God. They could believe in its protection.

But when Moses descended from the mountain and saw the people dancing around this egel masehah, this Golden Calf, this idol, he was furious. In anger, he smashed the two tablets of the law. Then he demanded an explanation from Aaron. What had happened?

Aaron tried to make excuses for the deficiency in his leadership. “They gave me gold, and I threw it into the fire and out came this calf,” he said in self-defense (Exodus 32:22-24). It was the people’s fault. It happened by itself.

In his essay, “How Leadership Fails,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is clear on the attributes of leadership. Leadership can fail for both external and internal reasons, he writes. If there are external reasons, maybe the time is not right, the conditions are unfair, or there is no one to talk to on the other side. Sometimes even the best efforts may fail. However, internal reasons are a different story. “A leader can simply lack the courage to lead. Sometimes leaders have to oppose the crowd” [3].

Aaron lacked the courage to lead. As a leader, he was a follower. Yet, as a High Priest, Sacks adds, he needed to follow the rules. In this, he was very successful. Leaders, after all, need followers. Aaron and Moses made a good team!

[1] Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, General Editor. “Gleanings,” The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York: Union for Reform Judaism,  2005) 602.

[2] Richard Elliott Friedman. Commentary on the Torah: With a New English Translation and the Hebrew Text (USA: Harper Collins, 2001) 281.

[3] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “How Leadership Fails,”

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.