The syndrome of abandoned followers

Parsha and its fulfillment - Parashat Ki Tisa - Rabbi Eliezer Shenvald - 5769

In memory of my mother, my teacher, Nechama Shenvald, of blessed memory, who passed away two years ago.

The sin of the golden calf described in the Parasha raises several questions whose solution may shed light on the behavior patterns of the public and the individual in similar situations, even if they are not completely identical.

The situation of the people of Israel in the desert, "… A land of deserts and pits, a land of drought and darkness, a land no man had traversed, where no human being had dwelt" (Yirmiyahu 2: 6), which did not allow for a normal life, created a complete dependence on miracles and the exclusive leadership of Moshe Rabbeinu. Moshe was a rare leader in his greatness: "'For this is Moshe 'the man' - Moshe was called a man of integrity and leadership, for he led Israel as a man who led the people of his household." (Yalkut Maor HaAfelah, Tu'SH Shmot 32:14).

According to the account of the nation, Moshe was supposed to come down from the mountain six hours ago: "When Moses ascended, he made a covenant with Israel that he would come down at the end of the 40th day, because he was late in descending as it is written "When the people saw that Moses was so long… (Shmot 32:6). And 'delayed' is the language of staying as it is written (Shoftim 5:28) “Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why so late the clatter of his wheels?” All of Israel gathered together with the elders, said to them: Moshe made a pact with us, he would come down at the 40th day and didn't come down, and for six hours we do not know what happened to him. 'Come, make us a god' (Shemot 32)". (Tanhuma Behaalotcha 14).

The people conclude that Moshe will not return. And them, their wives and children remain in the heart of the desert, without a leader and without anyone to guide them in this path.

People were left alone, helpless, in the land of darkness and shadows. Therefore, they ask for alternative leadership: "For it is known that Israel did not believe that Moshe was G-d, and that by his power he made them signs and wonders, and what reason should they say that since Moshe departed, and let us make a god, etc., because explicitly they said, 'a G-d that will go before us. Not that they would be given life in this world or in the world to come, but they would seek another Moshe, and they said: Moshe, who guided us the way from Egypt to here, that the journeys were according to G-d's commands"…they observed Hashem’s mandate at the Hashem’s bidding through Moses. (Bamidbar 9:23). Now he is lost from us, so we will make ourselves another Moshe to guide the way ahead of us according to His hand.

This is the reason Moshe was mentioned "for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt…, (Shmot 32:1) not the G-d who brought us up: "What they needed was a new 'man of God.' You can learn from Aharon's excuse to Moses that it is as I have explained: "They said to me, 'Make us a god to lead us' " - not a god to worship. He explained to Moshe, "As long as you were gone, they needed a guide. If you should return, they would leave him and follow you, as they had done at first" (Ramban, ibid).

It is unlikely that they saw the calf as a real leader: "For there is no fool in the world to think that this gold that was in their ears is the one who brought them out of Egypt, but they said that the power of this form brought them up and will not find anywhere that the calf took us out of Egypt". (Ramban, ibid).

But what is the logical line that connects the fact that Moshe is 'so long' to come back and the public's fear that Moshe will not return any more, to the conclusion that they should ask for a leadership replacement in the form of a "golden calf" and not turn to the next in line, to Aharon, a well-known leader with his own qualities who will take over the leadership?

The behavior of the people of Israel reflected a post-traumatic reaction of a people who felt frustrated, abandoned by their leader, even if unjustly, a feeling similar to betrayal. The greater the dependence and helplessness, the more severe the syndrome was.

From a post traumatic point of view:

  1.  This was an irrational response preferring the 'calf' leadership to Aharon, a reaction that stems more from the gut, from the emotion than from the head, from the mind.
  2.  It was a type of anger (not justified) against Moshe, who ostensibly abandoned them, and even if he returned, they would no longer recognize his leadership: " for that man Moses, we do not know what has happened to him.”, what is "for that"? Said Rabbi Zakai, saw Moshe hanging in the air and standing, they said even if he descends, we don't trust him" (Midrash Hagadol 32:1).
  3.  This was in search of a familiar response to their situation, from what they knew of their past in Egypt, which would give them stability. Even though it was a bad solution: "And they said to Aaron: The Egyptians carried their gods and sang before them and saw them. …'Come, make us a god who shall go before us…' So we can see him in from of us like the Egyptians". (Pirkei DeRabi Eliezer 45).
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