“It was not me. The people asked and it happened.” The story of the golden calf is one of the most well-known in Judaism. Moses is delayed for 40 days and nights receiving the first set of tables (containing the Ten Commandments) on Mount Sinai and, perhaps fearing the worst, the Israelites become restless and nervous.
They demand of Aaron, Moses’ brother who is temporarily in charge, that he create a physical manifestation of God. Rather surprisingly, Aaron appears to agree without protest and instructs them to bring their gold rings, which he casts into a golden calf. The Israelites then offer sacrifices to the idol, while dancing around it.
An angry Moses talks an even angrier God out of his planned destruction of the Israelites, before destroying the tablets and the calf, which he grinds into powder, mixes with water and forces the Israelites to drink. He rebukes Aaron, who responds with the rather pathetic line above.
Does this incident help us prepare in any way for what may be to come with the coronavirus pandemic? I suggest it reminds us of two things. First, most humans go about their lives with little thought about what happens during the unexpected, when what we take for granted is taken from us. The Israelites responded in a particular way to the absence of Moses, who had been a part of their daily lives.
Second, is the calibre of leadership. Leadership is frequently best tested in a crisis. Aaron faced a crisis and followed the mass, giving into its fears. He failed even to attempt, never mind to succeed, in calming public disquiet.
In the circumstances of a coronavirus pandemic, our lives will change temporarily. There is little doubt what Judaism requires. In a paraphrase of Pirkei Avot 2:5, where none are showing leadership, show leadership.
Danny Rich is the outgoing chief executive and Senior Rabbi of Liberal Judaism