When Benei Yisrael approached Aharon to ask that he make for them an idol, they based their request upon Moshe’s mysterious absence: “Arise and make for us a deity…because this man, Moshe, who brought us from the land of Egypt – we do not know what happened to him” (32:1). Curiously, the people referred to Moshe in this context as “zeh ha-ish Moshe” – “this man, Moshe.” Rather than simply express their concern that their current leader is missing, they made a point of noting that “this man, Moshe” was gone.
Rav Amnon Bazak suggests that this reference to Moshe perhaps reveals the true, underlying reason for the people’s request. Moshe’s absence was just a pretext; their true motivation was the fact that Moshe was only a “man,” and they wanted an “elohim” – a leader to whom they could look as a deity. They saw Moshe’s prolonged absence as an opportunity to find an alternative, to make for themselves an idol which they could view as their divine ruler, rather than be led by a mortal.
Rav Bazak draws our attention to an earlier instance where Moshe is referred to as a “man.” The Torah in Parashat Bo (11:3) describes the high esteem that Moshe earned among the Egyptians, writing, “the man Moshe was very prominent in the land of Egypt in the eyes of Pharaoh’s servants and in the eyes of the people.” Tragically, Benei Yisrael failed in an area in which the Egyptians succeeded. Although the Egyptians were steeped in idolatry, they were able to admire and respect Moshe even while acknowledging that he was an “ish.” Benei Yisrael, however, could not feel at ease being led by an “ish,” and demanded an “elohim.” They did not want a leader with mortal qualities; they could not bring themselves to respect and obey a leader with human limitations and flaws. They were able to respect only a leader whom they could perceive as an “elohim” – a divine being. (The painful irony in this demand is that it was expressed at a time when Moshe spent forty days atop Mount Sinai living as angelic being, without food or water. Although Moshe was, in fact, an “ish,” a limited human being, for those weeks he succeeded in rising to the level of an angel, transcending the normal limitations of human existence.)
We can point to several reasons why people would be inclined to search for an “elohim” as a guide and leader instead of an “ish.” One reason is that viewing somebody as an “elohim,” as a being with supernatural capabilities, absolves them of the need to try to emulate that figure. If our leader transcends human limitations, then we, who are bound by those limitations, cannot possibly reach anywhere near that person’s stature, and so we might as well not even try. But when we are led by an “ish,” by a person beset by the same weaknesses, struggles, natural drives and negative inclinations that we confront, but who nevertheless succeeded in achieving greatness, we are challenged. We cannot excuse ourselves with the claim that we are but an “ish,” mere mortals, incapable of rising to towering levels of spiritual greatness. The primary message we are to learn from Moshe Rabbenu and other models of greatness is that humans can rise to spiritual heights, that our human qualities are not inconsistent with spiritual achievement, and that our natural flaws and shortcomings do not excuse us from the obligation to strive to grow and to serve our Creator at the highest level we can.