The Charismatic Religious Leader

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s Parsha, Ki Tisa, contains the tragic and inexplicable account of the Eigel HaZahav (Golden Calf). The questions pertaining to this incident are numerous. How could the same Jews–who had heard a divine proclamation on Mt. Sinai, to not have any deities alongside of Hashem–so quickly regress to a primitive religious state?

The behavior of Aharon is equally incomprehensible. How could he fail to stand up to the mob, and reject their request, in no uncertain terms? Indeed, Moshe informs us in Devarim 9:20, “And with Aharon Hashem became greatly angered to destroy him; so I prayed also for Aaron at that time.” And yet, after the sin of the Eigel, Hashem appointed Aaron, to minister before Him in the Mishkan (Tabernacle).

Everyone attests that, Aaron only had pure motives in his response to the people, when they said, “…rise up, make for us gods that will go before us, for his man Moshe who brought us up from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has become of him!” (Shemot 32:1).

Aaron decided, not to get into a confrontation with the Jews. Instead, he pretended to be sympathetic to their distress and willing to work with them. In this way, he thought he could delay matters–until Moshe returned–and the entire crisis which had been engendered by his absence would be resolved.

So Aaron instructed the people, to remove the gold jewelry of: their wives, sons and daughters–and bring them to him. The commentators maintain, that this was a delay tactic, since Aaron believed that the people and their children would be reluctant to part with their ornaments.

But Aaron was wrong. The people were quick to detach their jewels and offer them to Aaron. He clearly did not appreciate how powerful their emotions in this area were, or perhaps, he would have opted for a different course of action.

When he observed the positive reaction of the people to the Golden Calf, he sought to bring things under control. He built a Mizbeiach (altar) and proclaimed; “A festival for Hashem tomorrow!” (Shemot 32:5)

But it was too late, for things had already gotten out-of-control; as the verse attests, “They arose early the next day and offered up elevation-offerings and brought peace-offerings. The people sat to eat and drink, and they got up to revel.” (Shemot 32:6)

Although Aaron acted with the best of intentions, he committed a grievous error in a matter of utmost importance, and was responsible for being an accessory to the inexcusable sin of Avodah Zarah (idolatry).

In considering the tragic story of the Eigel, we must ask; what are the teachings to be learned from this debacle? What is the takeaway? There are many lessons, but I would like to focus on one which is very relevant in our times; the proper relationship we should strive to have with our spiritual leaders.

We all know how important it is (in the words of Pirkei Avot 1:6) to “...establish for yourself a Rav…”. This person fulfills many tasks: as teacher, advisor and source of inspiration. Most of us, can recognize the vital role that gifted and dedicated mentors have played in our moral growth and development.

However, there are numerous instances where the proper role of the Rebbe becomes distorted, and he assumes a super-human aura, in the eyes of his followers. As a consequence–due to the great charisma of the Rabbi–the religious beliefs of his disciples become completely dependent on his persona. The students never make the necessary transition to independent understanding and conviction.

When this happens, the followers do not believe in the ideas that the teacher propounds, but rather, in the teacher himself. They believe he is infallible, and thus, whatever he proclaims must be true. But what happens when the great leader is no longer around?

The loss of the charismatic religious personality, can create a crisis for his followers. The Rabbis assert that Eisav started out as a genuine Tzadik (righteous person), but at the age of fifteen embarked on the path of wickedness. The event which triggered his spiritual reversal was the death of his grandfather, Avraham. As long as he was alive, Eisav sought to emulate his ways. But he never made the crucial transition to personally embracing Avraham’s philosophy. For him, it was always the “Torah of Avraham,” never his own; and when his relationship with Avraham ended, so too, did his identification with his ideas.

And this attitude, was part of the problem which led to the Eigel incident. The religiosity of the people, was bound up with the personality of Moshe Rabbeinu. As long as they had him around, they felt secure in terms of their relationship with Hashem. But once they felt that he was gone, they panicked; and made an irrational request, to fashion some type of “deity” which could take his place.

The takeaway is, that we should strive to develop a proper relationship with our teachers and leaders. We should respect them, but never accord them the status of supermen. We should not assume that whatever they say is automatically true; but rather, we should question and challenge their ideas.

Furthermore, we should develop and cultivate the ability to think for ourselves, so that we can be truly enriched, by what we learn from our esteemed teachers. This ability, will provide us with the sense of confidence in the truth of our religion and will enable us to go “from strength to strength,” in our moral and ethical development. May we merit to attain this lofty level.

Dear Friends, In a few weeks we will begin the public reading of the Book of Vayikra. I am happy to announce that the newest installment of my series, Eternally Yours- G-d’s Greatest Gift To Mankind- Vayikra, is now available at Amazon. I hope it enhances your study of the third Book of the Torah. Rabbi Reuven Mann