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February 13, 2014

Parashat Ki-Tissa
Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

“The LORD said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.” (Exodus 32:7)

When the Children of Israel worshipped the Golden Calf, Moses was confronted with one of the greatest challenges to his role as leader of the people. God laid part of the blame on Moses’s shoulders. “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.” It is “your people” who have acted perversely, not “the people.” They didn’t just leave Egypt, you brought them out of Egypt. The following midrash addresses how a leader should react when he or she is faced with a crisis. According to this midrash, leaders should not remain aloof and above the people, rather, they must “go down” from their greatness. While it may be easier for a leader who is facing a crisis to try and stay above the fray, Moses’s success was based upon his ability to lower himself in order to help lift up others.

“And the Lord spoke to Moses, ‘Go down at once!'” (Exodus 32:7): What is the meaning of “Go down at once”? Said R. Eleazar, “Said the Holy One, blessed be he, to Moses, ‘Moses, go down from your position of greatness. Have I made you great for any reason other than for Israel? Now “Immediately Moses grew weak and did not have the power to speak.” When he said to him, ‘Leave me alone that I may destroy them’ (Deuteronomy 9:14), Moses thought, ‘This matter now depends on me.’ “Immediately he stood and become strong in prayer and sought mercy.” The matter may be compared to the case of a king who grew angry with his son and was giving him hard blows. The king’s friend was sitting before him, afraid to say anything to him. The king said, ‘Were my friend not here, sitting before me, I should have killed him.’ “The other realized, ‘This matter depends on me.’ Immediately he stood up and saved [the son].” (Berachot 32a)

Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky is the Rabbinics Curriculum Coordinator at AJR.