"When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain" Exodus 32:1
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It is easy to lose patience with leaders, be they politicians, presidents, monarchs or rabbis. These individuals carry the weight of our collective expectations, our dreams, our hopes; and when they appear to let us down, we often channel our energies that hitherto had been positive and supportive into feelings of hate, disgust and anger.
Moses had been apart from the Israelites for 40 days. They had coped pretty well, until a fatal calculation error changed the course of Jewish history. As the days became weeks, the nation got restless. Moses was not only their leader, he embodied their collective imagination, the dream that the slavery would end and they would be taken "on eagles wings" to the promised land.
When a group emerged, claiming that the hour had passed and surely Moses was lost, the people were terrified. The liberated slaves still had much to learn about independent thought and they relied heavily on Moses.
According to the 13th century Italian rabbi, Menachem Recanti, if they had waited a little longer and not lost patience with Moses, the goal of creation would have been fulfilled; there would be no more death or temptation to do evil, they would have been given the tablets of the law.
What Moses does next demonstrates his genius. He does not accept that the people are truly guilty; instead he defends them against God's accusations.
This episode reveals more than any other why Moses is called our teacher, Rabbeinu. He had shied away from a leadership role, but God had other plans. A true leader will rise above the complaints and stand firm when others are trying to knock them down. The greatest leaders will defend their people, even while being attacked by them. Such people deserve our respect and appreciation.