Building Character and Building Society

Rabbi Sarah Bassin

It’s no secret that our society is experiencing a crisis of civility — that the mechanism in our culture that enabled debate for a greater purpose has given way to a public sphere that demeans, de-legitimates and dehumanizes the ideological other. 
Moses and Aaron represent two different ways of taking on society’s ills. 

I have just returned from two weeks at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem studying what Jewish tradition offers for navigating a deteriorating society as moral leaders.  Hartman scholar Tal Becker offered us two paradigms of how our leaders have engaged these kinds of toxic issues in the past.  Aaron — as the high priest — even when his people were at their worst in the case of the golden calf, he chose to stay with them as their leader.  Moses, on the other hand, found it necessary to remove himself from the people so as not to lose perspective.  Moses spent time in God’s presence and was able to return to the people with clear standards in the form of the Ten Commandments on how to behave.  There are pros and cons for each approach to dealing with a deteriorating society.  Aaron’s desire to stay with the people let him minimize damage.  Had he not been around, perhaps they would have resorted to much worse than a golden calf.  And yet —  in his choice to stay, he likely lost some sense of standards for himself.  After all, he did justify his participation in idolatry.  Moses, on the other hand, certainly maintained a sense of moral clarity that enabled him to smash the golden calf upon his return.  But his separation from the people came at a great cost — allowing the people to devolve further than they ever would have with him present.  Moses and Aaron represent two different ways of taking on society’s ills. 

We can choose our own moral integrity as our highest value like Moses and do our best to separate ourselves from the toxicity of our public debates.  Or we can choose to be like Aaron and find ourselves in the muck of it all — hoping not to lose too much of ourselves as we face some of the ugly around us.  In all likelihood, there will be times when we will need to be Moses and other times when we need to be Aaron.  The trick is figuring out which situations demands which type of leadership.

– Rabbi Sarah Bassin