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Parashat Ki Tissa

March 5, 2012

By Rabbi Marc Rudolph

And oftentimes excusing of a fault
Doth make the fault the worse by the excuse.
~William Shakespeare

In this week’s parashah, Ki Tissa, the Israelites, under the guidance of Aaron, build a golden calf. When confronted by Moses as to how he could allow the people to engage in such behavior, Aaron makes… excuses. First, he blames the people themselves. “You know,” he tells Moses, “that this people, they are bent on evil.” Then Aaron seems to evade responsibility: “I said to them, ‘Who has gold?’ They removed it and gave it to me.” Finally, he claims that he did not take an active role in creating the Golden Calf – “I threw it into the fire, and this calf emerged!” One commentator notes that in claiming he did not actively fashion the golden calf Aaron implies divine approval! (Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, p. 534). Would it not have been better had he owned up to the part that he in fact played in the incident?

Perhaps Aaron would have been better served by saying something like this:

I will not put myself into a position where I have to defend myself, to state my side of the story. There’s no side. There’s only one side, which is the lack of judgment on my part. That’s really all I have to say. I have no excuse….. I intend to mend the bridges that I’ve burned and help rebuild the bridge if I need to all by myself.

These were, in fact, the very words Steve Smith, the great wide receiver of the Carolina Panthers, used in addressing a fight he got into with a teammate at a routine practice session. Smith broke the teammate’s nose and was suspended for two games. (John Kador, Effective Apology, p.75).

We human beings tend to go easy on ourselves. We rationalize our actions and behaviors to put them in the best possible light. We more easily shift the blame to others instead of squarely facing ourselves. That is why Steve Smith’s words are so refreshing, especially for a professional athlete. We read about so many great athletes who are self centered and evade responsibility whenever they could. (Think Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens…) Here is an athlete who says, “I did it and there are no excuses for my behavior. I caused damage to myself and to my relationships with others, and I now have some work to do to repair that damage.”

The Modern Hebrew poet Judah Leib Gordon wrote, “We have a bat’s eye for our own faults, and an eagle’s eye for the faults of others.” Just as we can be too easy judging ourselves, we can be too harsh in our judgment of others. Perhaps this is why our sages teach in Pirke Avot (1:6), “Judge everyone l’khaf zekhut – on the scale of merit.” With respect to Aaron, our sages teach by example. In his commentary on the incident of the Golden Calf, Rashi tries to put Aaron’s behavior in the best possible light by delving into the possible hidden motivations for Aaron’s behavior.

In our own lives, as well, we should cultivate a charitable disposition toward judging the behavior of others. Rabbi Jack Riemer notes that often we make “judgments without knowing enough facts, or without the sympathy and the empathy that we ought to show toward other human beings” (cited in Joseph Telushkin, You Shall Be Holy, Volume 1, p. 74).

May we learn to judge others as kindly and compassionately as we judge ourselves.


Rabbi Marc D. Rudolph (AJR ’04) is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Naperville, Illinois.