What can be learned about leadership from Moshe’s reaction to the golden calf? Is it ever acceptable for leaders to speak or act out of anger? The commentaries on parshat Ki Tissa provide some insight.
When Israel commits the sin of the golden calf, the Torah states that Hashem became angry, so to speak, and Moshe calmed God’s anger. God tells Moshe “leave Me be so that My anger may blaze forth against them.” Yet, after succeeding in turning back God’s anger, Moshe seems to lose control upon coming down the mountain and seeing for himself the people celebrating with the calf. The parallel between God and Moshe’s anger is reinforced by the Torah’s use of the same words: ויחר אף. Next, Moshe throws down the first set of luchot (tablets) and shatters them.
Was Moshe’s shattering of the luchot condoned by God? One view is that not only was Moshe right to break the luchot, but God even agreed with this act. God tells Moshe to make a second set of luchot, with the same words as on the first ones which he had shattered, אשר שברת. This is interpreted in Talmud Shabbat with a wordplay – strength to you (yashar kochecha) for shattering them. Here, God affirms Moshe’s action. A more critical view is found in Devarim Rabbah, where God reprimands Moshe for breaking the luchot. Since Moshe broke the luchot from a place of fury, God punishes Moshe by having him re-make the second set of tablets. Here, Moshe’s greatness is in accepting this.
The Talmud also teaches that the broken luchot were kept in the same ark as the new luchot, due to their sanctity. Perhaps it was also to serve as a warning. The image of carrying the broken luchot can be a reminder to modern leaders as well, who hopefully strive to be like Moshe, that they have a responsibility to not react from anger nor spread enmity, but rather to model good character and temperament toward each other and the world. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson