“G-d declared to Moshe, Go down [from the mountain] for the people whom you brought out of Egypt have become corrupt” (Shemot 32:7).
What is the role of a leader? What are his responsibilities? Can he, should he be held responsible for the actions of his followers even if he is not to blame? The Torah’s answer is unequivocal. A leader is judged by the actions of his flock. When his followers fail, the leader must find a different line of work. Thus, the Talmud explains that when G-d told Moshe to “go down”, what he was saying was, “get down from your position, I only made you a leader for the sake of the Jewish people; now that they have sinned, why do I need you?” (Berachot 32a).
The sole purpose of a leader is to elevate the people. It is not a base to be used to increase his influence or to make contacts. It is not a plum to be given as a reward for hard work or big donations. Good management skills may make a good administrator, but they are no guarantee of a good leader. A leader must be able to inspire people, or at a bare minimum, prevent them from backsliding. And this is precisely what Moshe did not do. While he was busy talking to G-d, being personally inspired and getting transformed into Moshe Rabbeinu, the people were worshipping a golden calf. What good is a rebbe if the talmidim are not interested in the subject matter?
The people danced, and put Moshe’s position on the line. After all, he had been unable to transform the “stiff-necked people” into a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Shemot 19:5). Just like (lehavdil) the coach who gets fired for the poor play of his team, Moshe was to “go down” from his leadership position.
However, when one reads the entirety of G-d’s message to Moshe, one finds an amazing development at the end. It is not Moshe who is to be fired, but the Jewish people. “Do not try to stop Me when I unleash my wrath against them to destroy them; I will then make you into a great nation” (Shemot 32:10). Moshe was the greatest leader who has ever lived (and will ever live). The failings of the Jewish people were not a reflection of his leadership. Instead, they were a reflection of the sad state of the Jewish people. If Moshe—who defeated Pharaoh, led us through the sea, defeated Amalek and gave us the Ten Commandments—could not inspire the Jewish people, then no one could. The people would have to be replaced. G-d would find a flock who would appreciate Moshe, and be inspired by his leadership.
Of course, Moshe would have none of it. The Jews were “his people”, and the great leader would not stand by while his nation was destroyed, even if they were might have deserved such a fate. “Now, if you would, please forgive their sin. If not, You can blot me out from the book that You have written” (Shemot 32:32). The fate of the Jewish people was to be his fate. And yes, ultimately, that would mean that Moshe would be denied his greatest wish. He would be unable to complete his mission of “bringing them to a land flowing with milk and honey” (Shemot 3:8) because “G-d also displayed anger at me because of you and He said, you, too, will not enter the land” (Devarim 1:37).
Moshe rejected the easy path of leading agreeable people. Instead, he chose to lead a difficult nation, and tried to inspire them to greatness. While he did not fully succeed in his lifetime, his great act of mesirat nefesh—of literally giving his life for the Jewish people—is the model that has inspired all great Jewish leaders through the ages. Let us do what we can to ensure that our leaders get their just reward.