A short while after receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai, the Children of Israel find themselves at the foot of mountain, waiting for Moses to come down. “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him'” (Exodus 32:1). What happened to Moses up on that mountain? Will he ever come back? Is he gone? Will we survive without him? What’s a leaderless people to do?
One can imagine that when Moses ascended Mount Sinai for some one-on-one time with God, both Moses and God particularly enjoyed it. God, who’d finally found a leader for his people, and someone to talk to, presumably wanted as much time with Moses as God could get. And for Moses, to be in God’s presence must have been, well, Divine. Why on earth would Moses want to leave God and return to the constantly complaining Israelites? It’s hard to be a leader, especially of people who don’t even know where you’re taking them! The Israelites had never been to Israel! They were operating on faith, trust, and more than a little fear and Jewish guilt mixed in for good measure. They needed Moses, their leader. Where had he gone?
For Moses, there’s no escaping the burdens of leadership. He could go up the mountain to be with God, but he’d have to come down again. Moshe needs to be with his people, and thankfully he comes down the mountain, where he discovers that taking the Israelites out of slavery is perhaps not as easy as he thought. I can only imagine what must have gone through his mind when he was told about the golden calf. “I go away for forty days and they try and replace me with a gold cow made from their earrings? Really?”
The Talmud says that “More than the calf wants to suck, the mother wants to give milk.” Moses is a true leader and he and the Israelites are inevitably linked. Running away isn’t possible. Even staying up on the mountain with God isn’t possible. Moshe and the Israelites belong together.
But Moshe goes above and beyond the call of duty. When God tells Moshe what the people have done, God said “I see that this is a stiffnecked people. Now, let me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation” (Exodus 32:9). Moses implored God not to destroy the Israelites. Throwing in his lot with his people, Moshe tells God “if you will forgive their sin [well and good]; but if not, erase me from the record You have written!” (Exodus 32:32). Moshe would rather be erased from God’s story than see his people destroyed. Even with all of their faults, they are his people, and he, they, and God are linked for all times.
The story doesn’t end here. Moses comes down the mountain, smashes the golden calf, rouses the Levites for battle and they kill 3,000 Israelites in order to quash the rebellion in their midst. And right after that, Moses goes back up the mountain, gets a new set of tablets and comes back down, his face radiant with God’s light. And the Israelites’ journey continues.
Moshe reminds God, and us, of a particularly important truth. Not every setback is a complete disaster. For sure, the episode of the golden calf is disheartening. Perhaps Moshe understood that when he didn’t come down the mountain, the people couldn’t see a way forward and had no hope for the future without something to rally around, even a fake cow. Rebbe Nachman teaches that “losing hope is like losing your freedom, like losing your self.” Perhaps Moshe understood that when we can’t find ourselves, we do all we can to hold on to any measure of normalcy, however artificial it may seem. Moshe knows that it’s easy to lose hope in the world, it’s harder to hold to your highest beliefs. Moshe does what he needs to rouse the people, and this challenge is overcome. The journey continues.
May we, like Moses and the Israelites, always be able to overcome any setbacks that keep us from our goals of living a life of holiness. May we always remember to put our faith not in false gods but upon the God of heaven, who leads us each day from slavery to freedom. May we be blessed with easy journeys, and may we remember to stop and appreciate all the blessings along the way.