Weekly Messages From Rabbi Avi Harari

True Leadership

A message from Rabbi Avi Harari

Parashat Ki Tisa 2017

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In his recent book, The Myth of the Strong Leader, Archie Brown noted the mistaken tendency to equate “strong leadership” with “good leadership.” He argued that it is wrong to believe that the more power one individual wields, the more impressive a leader he is. Drawing from examples on each end of the historical spectrum, Brown illustrated the dangers inherent in a system governed by a single individual and the potential success latent in one that includes the voices of many.[1] This perspective on leadership has shed light for me upon Moshe’s several actions in the immediate aftermath of het ha-egel.

The episode began with the nation’s nervousness at that time:

And the people saw that Moshe lagged in coming down from the mountain, and the people assembled against Aharon and said to him, “Rise up, make us gods that will go before us, for this man Moshe who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him”. (32:1)

Am Yisrael’s description of Moshe in the moments prior to their sin made clear their mistaken conception of the nature of his role as their leader. Overlooking God’s part in the exodus from Egypt, they declared Moshe their singular leader and panicked in his absence. God hinted at their seriously mistaken understanding when he then commanded Moshe: “Quick, go down, for your people that you brought up from Egypt has acted ruinously” (7). Moshe’s descent from the mountain was thus charged with the mission of fixing the nation’s broken conception of leadership.

And Moshe stood at the gate of the camp and said, “Whoever is for God, to me!” And the Levi’im gathered round him. And he said to them, “Thus said Hashem, God of Israel, ‘Put every man his sword on his thigh, and cross over and back from gate to gate in the camp and each man kill his brother and each man his fellow and each man his kin.’” And the Levi’im did according to the word of Moshe, and about three thousand men of the people fell on that day. (26-8)

Michael Walzer highlighted the political significance of this episode. He noted that whereas many of the other murmurings in the desert ended with the wrongdoers’ death by God – at his word, the idol worshippers in this instance were killed by the peopleat Moshe’s command. Walzer detected in Moshe’s cry of “Whoever is for God, to me!” an expression of true leadership, and his immediate creation of a subgroup of leaders whose vision was focused on the future. Moshe drew to his side the “new-modeled men” who were committed to the covenant of a “chosen people,” and thereby created the magistrates of the future – the priests and the bureaucrats.[2]

In stark contrast to his previous acts of justice individually performed in Egypt – when he killed the Egyptian and separated the quarreling Israelites, Moshe now widened the nation’s circle of leadership and emboldened the appropriate people of caliber.

Moshe’s most memorable action at that time, however, was the smashing of the tablets (19). I believe that the true significance of that decision lay in the people’s understanding of the tablets as a body of knowledge necessarily taught by Moshe to the people.[3] Bill Gates wrote that “good leaders will challenge themselves, bring fresh thinking and expert advice, and not only invite but seriously consider opposing viewpoints.”[4] Understanding the unhealthy dependency of the people upon him at that time, that is exactly what Moshe did. He smashed the tablets and beckoned the people to think independent of himself. He forced them to seek knowledge and to discover parts of the Torah on their own.

It is in this light that I understand, as well, several midrashim that describe a fundamental difference between the two sets of tablets. The Hakhamim envisioned the first tablets as miraculously encompassing all of the Written and Oral Torah, while the second set teaching only the Written Torah. By smashing the first tablets, then, Moshe was in essence necessitating the people’s self-engagement and effort in studying and explaining the Torah.[5]

R. Moshe Lichtenstein detected a similar initiative of Moshe in his subsequent actions:

And Moshe would take the Tent and pitch it for himself outside the camp, far from the camp, and he called it Ohel Mo’ed (the Tent of Meeting). And so, whoever sought God would go out to Ohel Mo’ed which was outside the camp. (33:7)

R. Lichtenstein noted that Moshe was no longer in the camp – teaching the people in their own homes, walking among them, bringing the Torah to their door, and instead required anyone who desired the Word of God to make an active effort to go outside the camp and seek God. He thereby created a new echelon of active spiritual leadership and shifted the people from a leadership model based on passive acceptance to one that demanded initiative and effort.[6]

Het ha-egel taught Moshe the vital lesson of the “myth of the strong leader.” He learned that the people’s dependency upon him as their sole leader had led to their swift downfall and he quickly sought to change that conception. His string of successive actions – demanding that the God-fearers murder the idol worshippers, smashing the tablets, and moving the Tent outside of the camp – were all aimed at broadening the leadership of the nation. It was in those hectic moments of crisis that Moshe emerged as a true leader.

I’ve seen firsthand how ineffective and even dangerous it can be when leaders make decisions alone – and how much good we can do when we work together. (Bill Gates)

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari


[1] Archie Brown, The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age (New York, 2014).
[2] Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution (New York, 1985), pg. 60-1.
[3] Consider, for example, the nation’s request of Moshe at Har Sinai: “Speak you with us that we may hear, and let not God speak with us lest we die” (20:19). See, as well, Devarim 5:20-4.
[4] Bill Gates, “What Makes a Great Leader,” available at: https://www.gatesnotes.com/Books/The-Myth-of-the-Strong-Leader.
[5] See Beit ha-Levi, Discourse no. 18, printed at the end of Responsa Beit ha-Levi.
[6] R. Moshe Lichtenstein, Moses: Envoy of God, Envoy of His People (Jersey City, NJ, 2008), pg. 72-6. See, as well, the introduction to Harerei Kedem vol. 2 (Jerusalem. IS, 2004).