Parashat Ki Tisa: It’s Not Personal
Parashat Ki-Tisa tells the story of Het Ha’egel, the sin of the golden calf, in response to which G-d decided to kill Beneh Yisrael and begin a new nation through Moshe Rabbenu. He informed Moshe of His decision, and assured him that his "job" was safe, as a new nation would emerge from his progeny. Moshe, however, selflessly refused the offer. Devoted unconditionally to the people under his charge, he intervened to save them, praying to G-d to annul His decree. In the end, of course, G-d accepted His prayer, and decided against Beneh Yisrael’s annihilation.
Moshe’s devotion to the people comes into sharper focus when we consider the background to the story of the golden calf. What caused the people to fall so drastically from the level they achieved at the time of Matan Torah, and construct a graven image? Hazal explain that when Moshe did not return from the top of Mount Sinai when the people thought he would, the Satan seized the opportunity to cause them to sin. He made the world appear dark and showed them an image of Moshe lying dead in a coffin. This caused the people to become terribly depressed and anxious, and this allowed them to deteriorate to the point where they constructed a golden calf.
In short, the people made and worshipped the golden calf thinking that Moshe Rabbenu had died. And yet, the Torah tells that on the day they committed this sin, "Va’yakumu Le’sahek" – "They arose to make merry." The worship was accompanied by frivolous merriment and festivity. There was song, dance, and all manner of exuberant celebration. Moshe had every reason to feel terribly offended by the people’s jubilation. After all he had done for them, leading them out of Egypt and through the sea, caring for them like a faithful shepherd and bringing them the Torah, here they were celebrating what they thought was his death. No mourning, no grief, no eulogies – only celebration and festivity!
But this did not bother Moshe or affect his commitment to the people one iota. He understood that this is not personal. Moshe did not say to himself, "What an ungrateful people!" Rather, he thought, "It’s not their fault. They’re frail, they were only recently freed from generations of harsh slavery. This is not about me." And therefore he did not give up on them or reject them. He pleaded courageously and passionately on their behalf, effectively saving them from annihilation.
This is a true model of greatness. Moshe here shows us the ability to separate his personal feelings from the people’s needs. His mind was focused not on his ego, on the respect and consideration owed to him, but rather on what was best for the people. And this is why he interceded on their behalf despite having been scorned by them. He rose above the concern for his ego and concerned himself solely with the needs of Beneh Yisrael. And Moshe thereby sets an inspiring example for us of responsible and selfless leadership, tending to the needs of the people around us without any concern for personal honor and prestige.