The sin of the golden calf is one of the lowest points in our history. In addition to idolatry, the Jews went on to commit the two other sins that are considered by Jewish law to be the most serious of offenses, adultery and murder.

Exodus 32:6 describes the scene: “On the next day they arose early, offered up burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings, and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and they got up to make merry.” Rashi comments on the words “to make merry”: “In this, there is [also] a connotation of sexual immorality and bloodshed . . .”1

Where was the Jewish leadership at this time?

Where was the Jewish leadership at this time? Why were they not able to stop the sinning before it got out of hand?

One cannot answer that since Moses was on the mountain receiving the Torah from G‑d, the Jews were without leaders. The Torah clearly describes how Moses appointed temporary leaders in his place: “Moses and Joshua his servant arose, and Moses ascended to the mount of G‑d. And to the elders he said, ‘Wait for us here until we return to you, and here Aaron and Chur are with you; whoever has a case, let him go to them.’"2

Aaron had excellent credentials as a leader. He was Moses’ older brother and his right-hand man throughout the entire process of the exodus from Egypt. He was later appointed as high priest and received frequent prophecies from G‑d.

Chur, too, was a high-ranking and well-known personality. He was Moses’ nephew, the son of his older sister Miriam. Chur’s father was the famous Kalev ben Yefuna, the very righteous and courageous man who stood up to the 10 sinful spies and argued for the goodness of the land of Israel. Chur had already been active as a leader during the war with Amalek, as we see from Exodus 17:12: “Now Moses’ hands were heavy, so they took a stone and placed it under him, and he sat on it. Aaron and Chur supported his hands, one from this [side], and one from that [side], so he was with his hands in faith until sunset.”

Aaron and Chur were both very righteous and respected men, deserving and capable of leading the people. How is it that despite their presence and leadership, the Jews managed to carry out such a public and grand rebellion against G‑d?

Let’s examine the reactions of Chur and Aaron to the golden calf.

Chur’s reaction can be inferred from a comment of Rashi: “Aaron saw many things. He saw his sister’s son Chur, who had reproved them [the Israelites], and they assassinated him.”3

It is clear from this that Chur did indeed attempt to stop the sinning. He realized that as a leader, it was up to him to respond, and he did so with serious rebuke and condemnation. But his response was so harsh that, in their frenzy, the Jews did the unthinkable and actually killed him.

Chur’s response seems natural under the circumstances, and his personal sacrifice was very noble. He did whatever he could to stop the Jews’ sinning, until only death silenced him. But it was not enough. The sinning continued and only seemed to intensify.

Aaron’s response was exactly the opposite. He was known as a peaceful and loving person, not the confrontational type. He used diplomacy and appeasement and pretended to go along with the “plan,” in an attempt to stall things until Moses returned. In the end, he simply ran out of time, and the Jews did what they did with Aaron powerless to stop them.

What was it about Moses’ leadership that even Aaron and Chur could not replicate?

We first need to understand what it takes to be the ultimate, ideal leader of the Jewish people.

The ultimate leader mustThe ultimate leader must embody two opposite dynamics embody two opposite dynamics. On the one hand, he must care deeply for his people, love them, and have only their best interests in mind. And he must find a way to communicate his love, devotion and care, so that the people know their leader feels this way about them. On the other hand, a leader needs to display strength and boldness. He must communicate to his people what is right and what is wrong and stand firmly for what is true and correct.

Aaron and Chur each excelled in one of these qualities. Chur, like his father Kalev, was the bold and courageous leader who stood strongly for what was right. The problem was that the Jews didn’t feel his love and devotion. He came across as too critical and harsh, which produced the opposite effect he was trying to achieve.

With Aaron, the Jews felt understood, they felt loved and cared for, and they felt like he related well to them and their needs. The problem was that he was too kind and peace-loving, and the people took advantage of this.

It is perhaps for this reason that Moses appointed both of them to lead together. Moses knew of their individual strengths and realized that it would take the combination of both to provide solid leadership. If Chur and Aaron would have tempered each other’s reaction and responded to the sin as one, perhaps they could’ve stopped it.

Moses, on the other hand, was the ultimate leader who possessed both of these opposite qualities within himself. He was first and foremost a loving and caring leader. He was the one who came to the defense of a helpless Jew in Egypt, which almost cost him his life. He was the shepherd who ran after one stray sheep and returned it lovingly to its flock. He was the judge who sat from morning until evening listening to and advising all those who came before him with their problems and issues. He was the leader who came to the defense of his people time and time again and begged G‑d to forgive them.

But at the same time, he was strong and fearless. He stood up to Pharaoh, the ruler of the most powerful empire in the world. He knew how to take a stand and was never intimidated by the masses.

Nothing encapsulates this more than his reaction to the golden calf. He seemed to know just what to do the moment he descended from the mountain, and he put a stop to the sinning without facing any opposition. What did he in fact do? He smashed the Luchot, the Tablets. It was this one bold and brilliant move that finally put an end to all the nonsense.

What was so brilliant and significant about this one act? It was the double message that it sent. It was a paradox—and that’s what made it so powerful.

On the one hand, it was an act of harshness and condemnation. It sent a very strong and clear message that what was going on was totally unacceptable. It said, “Because of this sin, you do not deserve to have G‑d’s most precious gift—the Torah.”

But on the other hand, it was an act motivated by and infused with pure love and care. It communicated to the people how Moses was their defender and was looking to protect them.

Rashi explains Moses’ motivation for smashing the Luchot:

This can be compared to a king who went abroad and left his betrothed with the maidservants. Because of the immoral behavior of the maidservants, she acquired a bad reputation. Her bridesman [the person appointed to defend the bride should any problems arise] arose and tore up her marriage contract. He said, “If the king decides to kill her, I will say to him, ‘She is not yet your wife.’”4

Moses broke the Luchot to save the Jews. It was an act of love, done purely for the benefit of his people, and they were able to feel this love.

What was so brilliant and significant about this one act?

It was this potent combination, strength and love, that made Moses stand out as such a dynamic and successful leader.

We all find ourselves in positions of leadership, whether in our communities, schools or families. There will be times when we will be faced with a difficult situation and we will have to react and show leadership. Let us learn from Moses how to do this best. Take a strong stand and don’t show any weakness. But at the same time, let the love shine through. Then others will accept what you have to say because they see it’s right and they know that you only want was is best for them.