Ki Tissa Exodus 30:11 – 34:35 The Leadership of God, Moses and Aaron
There is a lot that goes on in this portion of the Torah, more than most. First, there is the issue of the census and its evident purpose, levying a tax on each Israelite over twenty years of age – no discount for those over 65 (a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight — twenty gerahs to the shekel, the confirmation of weight to be done by the priest). Is the money necessary for the upkeep of the portable sanctuary? Evidently not! The payment is called a ransom; its rationale is that it is paid so that “no plague may come upon them.” Instead of being based on a graduated tax based on ability to pay, rich and poor pay the same levy “as expiation for your persons.”
Then there is the continuation of the instructions for the mishkan, but no longer about the detailed structural and interior design. Verses 11-34 of chapter 31 are all about how to craft the utensils, the formulas for the anointing oil and incense to be used in this portable sanctuary and how they are all to be used. And, God forbid, if the high priests do not follow the directions precisely, they will surely die. These are not just rules for when the Israelites are in the desert, but for all time. These are eternal edicts to consecrate the priests. Do not try to replicate these formulas for daily use or even just to smell the incense. The punishment is dire. You shall be ostracized, “cut off from his kin.” God even names the craftsmen to be employed in carrying out the instructions. Talk about micro-management! Frankly, it all smells of the behaviour of a pharaoh from whom the Israelites had just fled.
Except the Israelites are then instructed to keep (v’shamru so familiar in a synagogue service) shabat as a sign of the covenant between God and the Israelites and as a way of remembering that the Israelites are a consecrated people chosen by God. It is a day of complete rest after working hard for six days, but, God forbid, you do any work, like fix up your recreation room. You “shall be put to death.” Only after receiving all these instructions is Moses given the stone tablets inscribed by the “finger of God.” Of course, that can only be a metaphor, for God does not have a body.
Or have we been sold a bill of goods?
Then the story gets really exciting. Moses has been away for a seemingly long period, perhaps a month. The Israelites get restless. There is a populist revolt. And the people get the High Priest, Aaron, to lead the revolt and make them an idol, a golden calf. Why would he consent to do that? Because the will of the people was too powerful and he wanted to stall until Moses returned? Because he was afraid the mob would put him to death if he did not go along with their wishes? Or because they wanted a physical reminder of their absent leader, Moses, and he was willing to oblige?
The latter seems implausible since the people explicitly asked Aaron to make them a god. When the cat’s away, the mice will play! If Aaron was afraid, there is no sign of fear. There is only the sense of an eager participant. And hardly a stall artist! He could have taken an enormous amount of time to gather the gold and the silver, to melt it down, to find just the right craftsman to make the make the mold and forge the golden calf. Nothing of the sort happened.
All these and other rationales for Aaron’s behaviour seem to be just apologetics. Someone who just tries to smell incense made according to the formula for the sanctuary is to be killed. But the leader of the rebellion who does what is considered the most horrific act of all, making an idol to be worshiped instead of God, gets off scot-free. Unjust is not the word for it! For the man who collects the precious metals, for the man who actually casts the mold and makes the golden calf, for the man who exclaims to the people concerning the golden calf, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” For the man, for the very person who is a High Priest, to then organize a hedonistic revelry for the occasion!
No thunder from on high. Just instructions to Moses to get back in a hurry to quell the rebellion against the emerging Hebrew religion. Moses, fearing God’s revenge, implores God not to wipe out the very people he consecrated. God relents. There will be no punishment for the people. But what about Aaron, Moses’ older brother, the High Priest who led the rebellion? How does Moses feel about being betrayed by his own brother?
As Moses is returning Joshua warns him about the rebellion and the revelry. Moses is in denial.
“It is not the sound of the tune of triumph,
Or the sound of the tune of defeat;
It is the sound of song that I hear!”
But Moses could not deny what was before his eyes when he returned. He lost it. He blew his cool. He confronted Aaron. What did Aaron say? It wasn’t me. The people made me do it. It is they who are evil. I did not mold the calf. It just emerged out of the fire. It is one thing to lead a rebellion. It is another to deny any responsibility. It is even worse to be such a craven coward with such a flimsy and preposterous recap. Does Moses punish his brother? He called forth the Levites, his praetorian guard, and, seemingly randomly, they slew about 3,000 of the 600,000 Israelites. Thus was the rebellion put down.
The same Moses who talked God out of revenge and punishment gave vent to his own wrath. Did he assume any responsibility for something he might have instigated by his absence and failure to leave behind a reliable second-in-command? Did he even hold his brother responsible? He did blame Aaron for letting the people get “out of control,” but even excused that by saying the people were a “menace,” thereby giving credence to the explanation that Aaron only went along because he was afraid for his life.
The behaviour of both Moses and Aaron is appalling. It is elitism of the worst sort. Most biblical exegesis offers apologetics rather than plausible interpretations and explanations, compounding the problem. Does Moses ever hold his brother responsible? The people are guilty of a great sin for making a golden statue, not because it was a piece of folk art, but because it was an idol of worship substituting for God. And God says, after Moses’ intervention on behalf of his sinning people, I will only cut those out from my favour who were actually guilty. No collective punishment. Nor even any arbitrary punishment as Moses had meted out. God just sent a plague which presumably killed only the guilty ones. I am tempted to be sarcastic – they were killed because they would not be paying taxes any more since the taxes already paid never saved them from the plague as promised when they paid the tax. But Aaron was not killed! God also reneges on his promise to live amidst the people. Why? Because He could get so angry at their stubborn willfulness that He might slay them. God nevertheless is persuaded to agree once again to lead them to the Promised Land. What is Moses’ punishment for letting all this happen? Moses will no longer be able to see God’s face. Only his backside.
I will not go on with rest of the section that recounts how Moses carved two substitute tablets as replicas to the ones he broke in his rage. For my theme is: understanding what is said about leadership. I begin with God.
The Lord passed before him and proclaimed: “The Lord, the Lord, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.” (34: 6-7)
God boasts. I’m a good guy. I keep my word. I am patient and kind, “forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin.” But not all! When I do not forgive, the punishment will extend to the third and even fourth generation. No more collective punishment in space. Only in time. For God is a temporal not a spatial God. He sets His imprint in history, not having pyramids built in his honour like the sun god. He will remain a hidden God present only in Spirit as He withdraws from the presence of the Israelites. Not to move back to the top of a mountain, but to place Himself in the vanguard of history. Humans will only be able to see God as history unfolds. Prediction will not be part of their ken. God will become a God of deeds rather than words. In return, no miscegenation. No paying respects to local customs. Smash all the religious places and figures of the local inhabitants and engage in ethnic cleansing. God would qualify to be a leader of ISIS.
Moses, quick to anger and slow to forgive, lacking any deep sense of compassion, though pleading for his people, for without them he would have no role and no mission. If any grace is to be found, it will not be located in Moses. The only one to whom he shows kindness and forgiveness is his brother.
Aaron comes off the worst. He refuses to take responsibility. He is a person of great privilege, but one who opportunistically deserts the establishment to lead the common people, those laden with insecurity and fear, resenting the privileges of the ersatz royalty. Just as Moses deserted the Pharaoh to return to the people, so does Aaron. But Aaron does so as a coward. And then he deserts the people he once led and blames them exclusively for what happened. No wonder Moses kicked him upstairs and took away his role as a military leader. Think of what would have happened in the attempted coup if Aaron had continued to have a command and control role over the military.
I speculate that Aaron resented his “promotion,” resented from being removed from a role with real power to one that was only ceremonial. When one of the elite deserts the establishment to effectively lead a populist revolt, not only against Moses, but against God, to risk his status and the riches associated with it, suggests very strongly that Aaron in the very depths of his being resented his younger brother who was far less accomplished than he was but was given the real leadership of the people.
We have an example of the irrationality of a populist rebellion led by a member of the establishment, but one saved by that same establishment lest the very sanctity of their positions be undermined. Fortunately for the Israelites there was another leader lurking in the wings, the man who alerted Moses in advance of his return of the rebellion underway, a man who stayed inside when Moses toured the camp to receive the acclaim he felt he was due from everyone else who came outside their tents.
“Joshua son of Nun, a youth, would not stir out of the Tent.”