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Parashat Ki Tissa: Challenging Times Call for Creative Leadership

Dr. Peri Sinclair
| 01/03/2021
Shavua Tov @ Schechter

As we read the Megillah this Purim, it dawned on me that last Purim, the Purim of 2020, was for many of us the last time we celebrated a holiday “normally,” surrounded by our community and family. For some of us, even last Purim was atypical and spent in isolation.

This past year has been a total  ונהפוך הוא  – “v’nahafochu,” turning things upside down – anomalous, even surreal.

We found ourselves in unfathomable situations, making decisions we never thought we would have to make. We spent much of the year self-isolating, deprived of physical contact, hiding behind masks and conducting much of our communication confined by the frame of a Zoom box.

Rereading our Parsha, Ki Tissa, at this point in time, filled me with empathy towards Aharon. Moshe left Aharon and Hur in charge when he ascended Mt. Sinai with Yehoshua, instructing the elders, the זקנים – z’kenim, to wait for him at the foot of the mountain. He didn’t take provisions nor did he share with them the details of his return.

The biblical narrative tells us that Moshe was absent for 40 days and nights. For the Israelites, recently freed from slavery, surviving in the desert, Moshe’s absence becomes a cause of stress. This is a People with a slave mentality, used to being shepherded and their time regimented. They are a People totally dependent on their leader, their savior and miracle maker, a People whose leader has essentially abandoned them, disappeared. And with his disappearance, they lost their sense of security and purpose. Moshe was their anchor and he gave structure to their existence.

Aharon is left in the lurch. In many ways he was one of them. He, too, was a slave in Egypt. As Moshe’s brother and helper, he was closer to the action, but he wasn’t the one who spoke with God or performed the miracles. I imagine that he, too, was wondering what had happened to Moshe and was questioning whether he was OK.

Aharon, however, doesn’t lose faith in God or in the People. He is compassionate and he addresses the situation in a language the People understand. The outcome of this episode is the  חטא העגל– the sin of the Golden Calf – which in our collective memory has become the archetype for idol worship. It is one of the two greatest sins of the Israelites in the desert.

When reading the story, however, I couldn’t help but notice that Aharon wasn’t punished for “leading the people astray!” One would expect that he be held accountable, and yet he remains the כהן גדול – the high priest. The rabbis do summersaults to explain away his responsibility. Hillel the elder, for example in Pirkei Avot, paints Aharon as a role model for pursuing peace!

This year, I can relate to Aharon. I appreciate his actions more than ever before. Faced with an anomalous situation, with a People in stress over a total breakdown of their community and familiar structures and routines, Aharon finds  a way to keep them engaged. He gets them involved on a personal level. He offers a spiritual experience.

The rabbis suggest that the Golden Calf is a conduit to God. Is this the ideal? No. Would he have acted this way in different circumstances? Probably not. Would he have liked this to be the new normal? I’m guessing not.

Still, I find myself identifying with him this year more than ever before. Unusual situations call for creative thinking. Community leaders and educators stepped up over the past year with “out-of-the-box” solutions. They have been resourceful and imaginative and have created alternatives as a kind of scaffolding to support their communities while scientists and medical teams have found ways for us to live with the virus.

We’re not out of the woods yet.  But there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel.  When we emerge on the other side, there will be some new tools we will take with us and others we will leave behind.

This year, the story of the Golden Calf has a new “take-away”– leadership under duress calls for creativity. Ultimately, our tradition understands this and has remembered Aharon as אוֹהֵב שָׁלוֹם וְרוֹדֵף שָׁלוֹם – ohev shalom v’rodef shalom – someone who loves and pursues peace – אוֹהֵב אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת – ohev et ha’briyot – loves humans and וּמְקָרְבָן לַתּוֹרָה – u-mekarvan la’torah – and brings them close to the Torah!

Shavua tov from Schechter.

Dr. Peri Sinclair is The Susan and Scott Shay TALI Director General.  She received her doctorate in Midrash from the Jewish Theological Seminary and her MA in Jewish Education from JTS’s Davidson School of Education​. Peri is a graduate of the T​ALI​ School in Hod Hasharon and a proud alumn​a​ of NOAM (the Masorti Movement’s yo​uth​ movement).  ​She​ ​has ​spent 15 summers ​in senior staff positions at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires.  She is married to Dr. Alex Sinclair and together they are raising three inquisitive kids in Modi’in.

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