The incident of the Golden Calf represents the most significant potential rupture in the new relationship between God and Benei Yisrael. God threatens to destroy the nation, n toto, and begin again with Moshe. The threat is a credible one – on a universal level, that is essentially what God did when Mankind failed Him, and He started again with Noah (Note that this is not the only parallel between Moshe and Noah – both are saved from deadly waters by being in a teivah). Moshe takes this very seriously and pleads with God, in the merit of Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov, to spare the nation. God accepts the plea and rescinds the devastating decree.
We would think that this is the end of the story but that is far from the case. In the aftershocks of the initial earthquake of this story the Torah presents us with an extraordinary scene:
Moshe would take the Tent, and pitch it for himself outside the camp, far from the camp, and he called it the Tent of Meeting. And so, whoever sought God would go out to the Tent of Meeting, which was outside the camp. When Moshe would go out to the Tent, all the people would rise and each man would station himself at the entrance of his tent, and they would look – following Moshe – until he came to the Tent. When Moshe would come to the Tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the Tent and speak with Moshe. (Exodus 33:7-9)
The powerful imagery of the scene highlights the crisis. Earlier, God had instructed Benei Yisrael to construct a Mishkan so that he could dwell amongst them, in the middle of the camp. Following the Golden Calf, although God rescinded the decree to destroy the people, there is no longer the promise of His presence amongst. Instead of a Mishkan for all the people, in the center of the camp, there is now only the Tent of Meeting, a private meeting place for God and Moshe, located far away from the camp. Moshe’s trek to that Tent is accompanied by the longing gazing of the rest of the people, following Moshe with their eyes, yearning for the presence of God in their midst.
God, Holy Men, and Regular People
There are probably many who would be content with this setup. Relationship with God and religious instruction is mediated through a holy man who retreats into his cloistered spiritual cocoon; God’s presence does not interfere with the daily lives of the everyman nor does the individual have to take responsibility for his religious life. Indeed, even today this model has a level of popularity both within and outside of the Jewish community.
For Moshe, however, this paradigm is invalid. He has no interest in replacing the Jewish people or in serving as a substitute for their direct encounter with the Divine. If God’s presence does not return to the people, he refuses to lead them from the mountain. Moshe demands a public sign that the same uniqueness accorded to his relationship with God will be extended to the people:
If your presence does not go, do not take us up from here. and how, then, will it be known that I have found favor in Your eyes, I and Your people? Will it not be by Your going with us, so that I and Your people will be distinguished from every people on the face of the earth? (Ex. 33:16)
Moshe here sets the standard for Jewish spiritual and political leadership. Leadership is not about serving an elite group of followers but about bringing the best out of and to the masses. Leadership does not involve personal gain, material or otherwise, and private spiritual bliss is of little value if the rest of the people are cut off from direct relationship with God.
The message, however, is not just about leadership, but about followership. Followers take guidance from their leaders but may not abdicate their own, individual spiritual responsibility. This is a message which Moshe learned well at Har Sinai, where is with the rest of the people at the bottom of the mountain during the great Revelation (see Ex. 19:25-20:2), and which he later declares publicly. “Were it only that all of God’s nation were prophets, that God would place His spirit upon the” (Num. 11:29).
Rav Zvi Grumet, a member of Beit Hillel, is the Tanakh Chair at Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi, Director of Educational Projects at The Lookstein Center for Jewish Education, and an instructor at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. He has authored numerous articles on both Tanakh and education, and has edited various publications. His first book, Moses and the Path to Leadership, was published by Urim in 2014.
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