In memory of my dear Mother Nechama Shenvald z'l whose first Yortzeit falls this week
Our parsha centers on the sin of the golden calf, which was one of the most severe crises in the history of Am Israel, and threatened to destroy the nation, G-d forbid. "And now, let Me be and I will unleash My anger upon them and I will destroy them." (Shemot 32:10) The Talmudic sages and some later commentators explain that the sin was a form of idol worship, but many of the Rishonim (Even Ezra, Ramban, the Kuzari) say that the sinners made the calf because they misunderstood Moshe Rabbenu's leadership, and had no intention of making the calf a god.
Why did they make the calf? "Were they so foolish that they didn't know that this calf, which was created that same day, didn't take them out of Egypt?" (Rashbam, Shemot 32:4) No, but since (by their calculation) Moshe was "delayed" in coming down from Mount Sinai, they thought he had died and that now they were left in the middle of the desert with no leader and with nobody to tell them what to do and where to go. In the magnitude of their mistake, they wanted an alternative to a flesh-and-blood leader. "Like charms made by sorcerers, which will tell them what they need." (Rashbam) They thought that the image of the calf will attract "higher powers" which they believed guided Moshe Rabbenu in his leadership. "They believed that the same Divine Spirit which rested upon Moshe when he took them out of Egypt also rested upon the calf..." (Riv"a, Shemot 32:4)
The greatness of Moshe's leadership was revealed, as he had to deal with this great crisis as he descended from the mount. This was evident in Moshe's breaking of the Tablets, recruiting the Tribe of Levi to punish those who served the calf, and questioning of Aharon regarding the creation of the calf. And yet another special facet of Moshe Rabbenu's leadership comes into play and becomes a model and strategy for leadership in Am Israel. Moshe "protects" the nation from its failures and from paying the terrible price decreed upon it (destruction), and defends it before G-d. Moshe stands at the forefront of the nation, before the divine "midat ha-din" (the strict face of the law), not willing to accept the sentence passed on the nation and doing everything in his power to nullify it. He takes upon himself responsibility for the nation and for the correction of the sin. "And now, if You will, forgive their transgression, and if not, then please erase me from the book which You have written." (Shemot 32:32) Moshe is willing to sacrifice himself and pay a personal price, in order to protect the nation from its failings. "This proves that he was willing to die for their sake." (Talmud Brachot 32a)
Moshe's model of "protective leadership" relates to all the vectors of leadership: "down" to the nation and its needs, "horizontally" against the external challenges that the nation has to contend with, and "upwards" as in this situation, as the defender of the nation. This model characterizes exemplary leadership in Am Israel. "Everywhere you see that the Avot (fathers) and the prophets sacrificed themselves for Israel." (Mechilta d'Rabbi Ishmael)
Furthermore: "Any leader who doesn't destroy his soul (self) and cast it before Am Israel is not a leader! Moshe says: 'If You will, forgive their transgression.' Yehoshua says: 'By me, G-d, what can I say…' (Yehoshua 7:8) By me (Yehoshua) and not by them. David says: 'Lord my G-d, may Your hand be against me and my father's house…'" (Midrash Hagadol Shemot 32:32)
The same way, Avraham Avinu "put himself on the line" for the people of Sodom, and Mordechai and Esther sacrificed themselves to save the nation.
Moshe's model of "protective leadership" is the highest purpose of a leader, as well as every person on a high level. Rabbenu HaRav Zvi Yehuda Kook ztz"l often quoted the essential words of the Ramchal (Messilat Yesharim 19): And there is a second principle in the kavanah (intention) of Hassidut*), and that is the good of the generation - that it behooves every Hassid that he have the good of his entire generation in mind when he performs his good deeds, to intend to give them merit and to protect them. And this is the meaning of the verse in Yishayahu (3:10): "Speak well of the Tzaddik because they will eat the fruit of his deeds"- that the generation eats from his "fruit". Similarly the sages explain the words "Does it (the land) have trees?" (Bamidbar 12:20) – is there someone who defends the generation like trees? (Baba Bathra 15) And behold, this is G-d's desire, that Hassidei Israel bring merit and atonement to all the other levels…since G-d does not desire the death of the wicked. Rather, it is a mitzvah placed on the Hassidim, to strive to give them merit and to atone for them. And he (the Hassid) should have this in the kavanah of his serving G-d, and also in his actual prayer. That is, he should pray for his generation in order to atone for those who need atonement, and to bring back whoever strayed from the path, and to speak in defense of the entire generation."
And in the words of Rav Kook, the great "seer" and defender: "The love of Israel and the (holy) work of defending the entire nation and the individuals is not just an emotional endeavor, but a great subject in Torah, and deep and broad wisdom…(Orot Israel)
*)A Hassid is one who does more than what the Torah requires of a regular person. This was written before the word Hassidut came to imply belonging to a specific "Hassidic" sect.