“The Role of Aaron and the Golden Calf”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The central focus of this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tisah, is the episode of the Golden Calf.

Moses had ascended the mountain and remained there for 40 days to receive the Torah from the Al-mighty. The Israelites miscalculated when counting the days, and were overwrought about Moses’s failure to return. Desperate for leadership, the people gathered around Aaron and demanded (Exodus 32:1): “Ah’say lah’noo eh’lo’him ah’sher yayl’choo l’fah’nay’noo, kee zeh Moshe ha’eesh ah’sher heh’eh’lah’noo may’eretz mitz’rayim, lo ya’dah’noo meh hah’yah lo,” Rise up [Aaron], and make for us gods that will go before us. For this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what became of him!

Aaron instructs the people to remove the gold rings that adorn the ears of their wives, their sons and their daughters and tells them to bring them to him. Taking the golden ornaments from the people, he binds them in a cloth and fashions them into a golden calf. The people then declare (Exodus 32:4): “Ay’leh eh’lo’heh’chah Yisrael,” This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt! The next morning the people rise up early, offer sacrifices, eat and drink, and begin to revel. At this point Moses comes down from the mountain, sees the raucous celebration, and breaks the tablets.

The obvious question for those who read this narrative is how could the great Aaron, brother of Moses, Prophet and High Priest of Israel, collaborate with the people to fashion a Golden Calf?

According to scripture, Aaron was three years older than Moses, and was therefore born before Pharaoh’s infamous decree to throw the Jewish boys into the river. The Midrash however maintains that Aaron was born shortly after the decree, and was saved by a miracle. (This is alluded to in Aaron’s Hebrew name–“ee hay’ra’yon” meaning, Woe to this birth.)

Scripture’s first mention of Aaron is found in the narrative that tells of Moses’s encounter with G-d at the burning bush. G-d tells Moses, who is reluctant to assume the task of Israel’s leadership, that Aaron will be his spokesman (Exodus 4:14). Again, according to the Midrash, during the 40 years that Moses was hiding in Midian it was Aaron who assumed the leadership of the people in Egypt.

When Moses finally returns to Egypt, he is greeted by his brother Aaron and the elders, who believe Moses’s claim that he is speaking in the name of G-d, primarily because he is accompanied by Aaron. From the moment that Moses first speaks to Pharaoh, until the Israelites cross the Red Sea, Aaron is always at Moses’s side, assisting him in all activities. In the battle with Amalek, Aaron is among those who hold up Moses’s hands so that Israel will vanquish the enemy (Exodus 17:12). When Moses ascends Mt. Sinai to receive the tablets, Aaron accompanies him with his two sons, Nadav and Avihu, and the seventy elders (Exodus 24:9).

It is when Moses is on the mountaintop for forty days, and Aaron is left alone in charge of the people, that we see what appears to be a flaw in Aaron’s leadership abilities. Although Aaron was older than Moses, and was a far superior orator than his brother, when it came to communal leadership, Aaron was apparently no match for Moses.

Our rabbis portray Aaron as the consummate man of peace, (Ethics of the Fathers 1:12): “Ohev shalom v’rodef shalom, ohev et ha’bree’ot oo’m’kar’van la’Torah,” a lover of peace, pursuer of peace, a lover of G-d’s creatures who brings them closer to the Torah. Perhaps this is the reason that Aaron could not stand up to confront the idolaters.

Aaron’s great quality of Ahavat Yisrael–unqualified love for the people of Israel, was abundantly reciprocated by the people. When Aaron passes away, the nation refuses to believe that Aaron has died until they are shown the actual bier and body of Aaron (Numbers 20).

Our rabbis are hard-pressed to explain how a man of Aaron’s stature could possibly cooperate with the people and create for them a symbol of idolatry–-a sin punishable by death. They therefore offer numerous explanations seeking to exonerate Aaron’s actions and relieve him from any taint of sinfulness.

Some of the commentators suggest that the Israelites did not really ask for a replacement for G-d, but rather for a replacement for their leader Moses. By fashioning the calf, Aaron was trying to show the people how absurd it was to try to replace Moses.

Other commentators explain that Aaron’s strategy was to stall for time. Without a leader the former slaves were on the verge of anarchy. Aaron therefore tried to delay, by demanding that they bring their gold jewelry, expecting that they would not respond quickly, and hoping that by the time they arrived with the precious items, Moses will have returned. The people, however, were out of control, and, uncharacteristically, brought their gold jewelry post haste.

Aaron then tied the jewelry in a cloth and cast it into the fire to show how meaningless their precious belongings were without faith in G-d. However, through the sorcery of some of the mixed multitude (eirev rav) the molten gold was fashioned into a Golden Calf. Aaron again tries to stall by telling the people to prepare for sacrifices the next day, expecting them to come late to services, as Jews usually do! Again, totally out of character, the people arrive early in the morning to begin their sacrifices and their revelry. It is at this point that Moses comes down, sees the sinful people and smashes the tablets.

Clearly, the rabbis have gone to great lengths to exonerate Aaron from any taint of collaboration with the sinful Golden Calf worshipers. On the one hand, there is very little textual support for Aaron’s innocence, since Aaron seems to go along with all the people’s demands. On the other hand, the fact that, except for Moses’s expressions of anger (Exodus 32:21&25), there is no Divine condemnation of Aaron recorded in the biblical narrative is rather surprising. It is probably this absence of any condemnation, and the fact that Aaron’s role with the Golden Calf never again merits mention in the Torah, that leads the rabbis to propose a host of justifications for Aaron’s actions.

But it is not only scripture’s failure to condemn Aaron that points to Aaron’s sinlessness. It is what the bible tells us of the exalted character of Aaron and the details of his life after the incident of the Golden Calf that virtually compels the commentators to presume Aaron’s innocence.

That Aaron is an ultimate man of faith is indisputable. After all, on the most special day of Aaron’s life, in the midst of dedicating the new Tabernacle, Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, die suddenly for bringing a strange fire. Aaron’s response is total silence and apparent acceptance of G-d’s judgment (Leviticus 10). When Korach and his collaborators challenge Moses and Aaron’s authority, Aaron is right by his brother’s side proving that Moses is legitimately speaking in the name of G-d (Numbers 16). When the people later complain about Korach’s punishment, Aaron boldly takes the firepan to stop the plague (Numbers 17:13). It was, in effect, Aaron’s thoroughly faith-affirming life that made it impossible for the rabbis to fathom that Aaron had in any way collaborated in the sin of the Golden Calf.

It is this steadfast faith of Aaron that is the legacy that has accompanied the Jewish people throughout the millennia. This same Aaron, who was apparently deficient as a temporal leader, bequeathed to us his extraordinary spiritual qualities that remain with us to this very day and which we cherish so profoundly.

Happy Purim (Monday night and Tuesday, March 13 & 14).

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat is also known as Shabbat Parashat Parah. It is the third of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat a thematic Torah portion concerning the Red Heifer is read from Numbers 19:1-22.