In this week’s parasha, Ki Sisa, we have some lessons about leaders and those they lead.
The parasha begins with God’s instructions that, when Moses takes a census of the Children of Israel, he is to do so by collecting a half-shekel from each person over 20 years old. The words Ki Sisa mean “to raise up,” which was appropriate because the coins collected in the census were used for the Mishkan (Tabernacle), so the people became elevated by using their means to honor God.
God also gives instructions about the construction of the Laver – the large copper basin in which the priests wash their hands and feet before performing the holy service. In next week’s parasha, Vayakhel, we learn that the basin was made from the copper mirrors of the women. (Exodus 38:8)
Also in Ki Sisa, Moses tells the people he will ascend Mount Sinai for 40 days to receive the Torah. The people think they should count the day he left as the first day, but Moses meant he would be gone for 40 full days, so the count would start the next morning.
When Moses does not return on the day the people expected him, they fear they are now leaderless, and seek something to be a symbol of their relationship with God. They revert to familiar things, and call for Aaron and Hur, whom Moses left in charge during his absence, to build an idol. Tradition tells us that Hur opposed those calling for an idol and they killed him. Aaron, to calm the crowd, tells the people to bring their gold jewelry. He melts it down and fashions a golden calf. To direct the people’s attention away from the idol and back to God, Aaron says there will be a festival for God the next day. Some of the people from the mixed multitude – non-Jews who left Egypt with the Israelites – begin dancing around the idol and worshipping it.
God knows what is happening in the camp, and tells Moses “Let My anger flare up against them and I shall destroy them and I shall make you a great nation.” Moses pleads with God not to do this, reminding God they are “Your people, whom You have taken out of the land of Egypt.” He also reminds God of the promises to the Patriarchs, to whom God promised to make their offspring as numerous as the stars and give them the Land of Israel.
Moses returns to the camp and learns what has happened. He smashes the stone tablets on which God has inscribed the Ten Commandments, then he smashes the idol, pounds it to dust, mixes it with water and makes the people drink it.
Now Moses calls out, “Whoever is for God, join me!” The Levites, who have not taken part in the sin of the golden calf, join Moses, and they strike down about 3,000 people who worshipped the idol.
Moses returns to the top of Mount Sinai. He prayed that God would forgive the people, “But if not, erase me now from this book that You have written.” Moses carves new stone tablets, and God again inscribes the Ten Commandments on the tablets. God teaches Moses the prayer we use to ask for forgiveness the Thirteen Attributes: “Hashem, Hashem, God, Compassionate and Gracious, Slow to Anger, and Abundant in Kindness and Truth. Preserver of Kindness for thousand [of generations], Forgiver of Iniquity, Willful Sin and Error, and Who Cleanses.” (Exodus 34: 6-7)
The parasha has two examples of how the service of God involves everyone. The half-shekel for the Mishkan was to be given by rich and poor alike. The copper mirrors for the Laver were used by women every day.
The parasha also has two examples of how a great leader like Moses cares for the people. When the people sin by worshipping the golden calf (the chet ha’egel), Moses twice asks God to forgive them, even saying he does not want to be included in God’s book (the Torah) if God will not forgive the people.
So we see that creating a community takes both great leaders, like Moses, who interceded with God to help the people, and also ordinary people who are willing to contribute their share to making things better for themselves and their neighbors.