While Moses was off to receive the tablets, the people fell into worshipping a Golden Calf. Angry and disappointed, God threatens the people and makes Moses an incredible offer. God is prepared to annihilate the people and start fresh by making Moses the founder of a great nation (Exodus 32:10). Moses, however, responds only to God’s threat. He completely ignores the offer to become the progenitor of a new people for God. What’s this about?
God begins his outburst by declaring, “Leave me be!” (ibid.) Who is staying God’s hand? The Midrash explains the situation may be compared to a king who has grown terribly angry with his badly misbehaving child. Infuriated, the king cries out, “Leave me be; I’m gonna smite him but good!” Standing just outside the door, the child’s tutor reasons, “By saying ‘Leave me be!’ the king must expect me to overhear, intervene and prevent him from doing something drastic he may later regret.” Immediately, the tutor barges in and calls for the king to exercise compassion and restraint, just as Moses does in pleading with God on behalf of his people.
From the perspective of the Bible, there is perhaps no person more important than Moses and no sin more destructive than idolatry. Maybe Moses could have opted for greater glory while allowing the people to get wacked. We may imagine similar circumstances, where a leader is sufficiently righteous to be tempted to go it alone without feeling dragged down by others who may seem aggravating and irredeemable. Moses’s behavior demonstrates that true leadership involves resisting, even ignoring, such an easy way out. Being part of a community means hanging in together and participating in a shared destiny, even in the face of profound disappointment. Walking away shouldn’t be an option unless we are sure we are better than Moses and that those letting us down are worse than idolaters.
Rabbi Mitch Levine