by Miriam Lichtenberg
At Ramah Galim, we have many different ways to be a leader. You may be the first one to jump into the ocean on a chilly summer morning; maybe you’re leading tefillah for your edah; perhaps it is you who begins the nikayon process for your table. In each instance of leadership you are both recognizing the needs of those around you, and modeling what taking action may look like. And of course, there are moments when we err in our leadership, when we do not correctly understand the needs of the people whom we are leading. Maybe it is too cold to jump into the water; maybe our instinct to clean the table was a bit hasty.
This week’s Torah portion is perhaps best known for its recounting of the Sin of the Golden Calf, חטא העגל. Moses is still on Mt. Sinai, continuing to learn new laws from God that he will then relay to the people of Israel. Before creating the Golden Calf, the people of Israel notice that Moses, the only leader they have ever known as a free people, is taking a worryingly long time to descend from the mountain. The text tells us וַיַּ֣רְא הָעָ֔ם כִּֽי־בֹשֵׁ֥שׁ מֹשֶׁ֖ה לָרֶ֣דֶת מִן־הָהָ֑ר – The people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain. Rashi, a medieval commentator, explains that, according to their calculations of what Moses told them as he was ascending the mountain, Moses was meant to have descended already! It is easy to blame the people of Israel for their sin; something harder to do is to critically look at the way Moses’ leadership may have hurt the people of Israel. Perhaps Moses recognizes this — later on in our parsha, God is so angry with the people of Israel that God threatens to extinguish them. Moses’ leadership shines through; he says וְעַתָּ֖ה אִם־תִּשָּׂ֣א חַטָּאתָ֑ם וְאִם־אַ֕יִן מְחֵ֣נִי נָ֔א מִֽסִּפְרְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁ֥ר כָּתָֽבְתָּ– Now, if You will forgive their sin [well and good]; but if not, erase me from the record which You have written!”
Moses is doing his best to be the leader the people of Israel need. And yet, he is literally up in the clouds for too long, and perhaps is not attentive to the needs of his constituents in that moment. It is perhaps this misstep in leadership that enables something as egregious as the Sin of the Golden Calf to take place. Missteps in leadership are natural to occur; what separates a good leader from a great leader is knowing how to acknowledge our mistakes. Here, Moses is sticking with his followers no matter their fate. Ultimately, they will emerge from this difficult time.
We as individuals, and Ramah Galim as a camp community, are not so different from the people of Israel at this very moment. We are a relatively new community, navigating the ropes of global suffering. And we are serving as leaders to ourselves and to each other of how to come out whole on the other side. I look forward to learning from each of our campers, staff, and leaders this upcoming summer.