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02/24/2016 11:23 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

By the People and for the People (Parshat Ki Tissa: Exodus 30:11-34:35)

This week's Torah portion, Ki Tissa, suggests two poles of leadership, a useful model for election season or any time. The reading begins with a call to order for the entire Israelite enterprise. Everyone is asked to make a contribution of one half-shekel as "enrollment" in the community, a kind of head tax to fund core services represented by the Tent of Meeting. The Tent of Meeting will eventually become the Tabernacle, the hub of Israelite life during their wanderings in the desert; the Tabernacle, in turn, becomes the Temple when the Israelites settle in the Promised Land.

While this act of civic allegiance--death and taxes were just as sure in ancient days as now, it seems--may not have been greeted with enthusiasm, it is necessary for this newly established people to marshal the resources to fund the center of communal life. In the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., "I like to pay taxes. With them, I buy civilization." The same was true for the Israelites, but the structure of this taxation also already hints at something uniquely leveling for this emergent nation: "Everyone who is entered in the records, from the age of twenty years up, shall give the Lord's offering: the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when giving the Lord's offering as expiation of your persons" (Exodus 30:14-15).

A flat tax, applied to all at the same rate, represents a communal trust. Then, later, when these funds are meant to be put to use, the approach changes radically: "The Lord spoke to Moses: See, I have singled out Betzalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. I have endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft" (Exodus 31: 1-3). Here, a single leader with unique skills is endowed by the Divine to serve a purpose that everyone needs--namely, the construction of the very Tent of Meeting that everyone had contributed to equally just verses before.

So what kind of society is this? Do all give equally of themselves to support the communal institution from which all will benefit? Or are certain individuals set apart with unique skills that they and only they can manifest in order to ensure that the needs of society are met?

An answer to this question is revealed in a scene following soon after, one of the most infamous conflicts of the Hebrew Bible: the Golden Calf. Moses has ascended Mount Sinai to confer directly with the Divine about the laws and statutes that the Israelites will be required to follow in order to fulfill their covenant with God. But while Moses, like Betzalel, has been selected as a unique individual to serve a purpose for the whole people, the Israelites grow restless: "When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, 'Come make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt--we do not know what has happened to him" (Exodus 32: 1).

A people without a leader to provide them a sense of security in their collective purpose can turn quickly to easy answers, pooling resources towards the exact opposite of the generative mission. At the beginning of Ki Tissa, with Moses' guidance (and Betzalel operationalizing the effort), each had given equally and methodically in support of a central hub of worship and law. When Moses' absence creates a vacuum, the people are easily drawn in another direction, which results in a schism. Moses returns from Mount Sinai, sees the Golden Calf, and shatters the tablets of the Ten Commandments on the ground. Punishments follow, not the least of which is a lack of trust between the people, their leader, and the Divine.

Neither this Torah portion nor the ones that follow offer a definitive answer about how best to lead and be lead, in the balance between unique individuals and the masses. We do learn, however, that the forever unfolding story of leadership requires the constant pursuit of balance.

Indeed, the same God who turns divine wrath against the Israelites, following their embrace of the Golden Calf and the destruction of the first set of tablets of the Ten Commandments, accompanies the second set of tablets with a litany of the thirteen attributes of divine mercy that will become a staple of Jewish liturgy. Here, broken trust is redefined. People and leaders and divine callings continually test and try each other--pushing, correcting, realigning, reframing.

Perhaps there is no permanent balance between the charismatic leader with a unique purpose and a people that must shape its destiny by its own hands. Wrestling with responsibility, in times of both challenge and success, belongs to everyone. When a small class of leaders takes control, the wheel must inevitably recalibrate in the direction of democratic involvement, as painful as those twists and turns may be. Charismatic, skilled leaders will continue to emerge, their power and vision balanced by the civic engagement of the masses. In this sense, the two visions of leadership in Ki Tissa are not poles, but oars of a boat working together, balancing movement forward during a long journey even in stormy waters.

Seventy Faces of Torah is a pluralistic Jewish scriptural commentary, produced by The Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College, in which thought leaders from around the world offer insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.

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