“Aaron, What Did This People Do To You?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tisah, we, once again, encounter the tragic saga of the Children of Israel’s grievous sin with the Golden Calf.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect to understand regarding the sin of the Golden Calf is the role played by Aaron, Moses’ brother–soon to be the High Priest of Israel. Was Aaron acting as a collaborator with the rebels, due to his dread of confronting the people lest he be murdered by the rebels, like his nephew, Hur? Or, perhaps, Aaron was trying to stall the people in the hope that Moses would soon return and put an end to the rebellion

Based on the approach of the Midrash Rabba Exodus 3, a number of commentators suggest that Moses’ reluctance to accept the leadership of the people of Israel was not because Moses felt unqualified or not up to the task, but rather that he felt strongly that his older brother Aaron, was the more natural and deserving leader. Not only did Moses recognize that Aaron already had many years of experience leading the people in Egypt, he was also concerned that Aaron would be deeply hurt if Moses suddenly assumed the leadership role. G-d’s reaction to Moses’ reluctance was to immediately display anger at Moses.

Rabbi Yaakov Filber in his wonderful studies in the weekly parasha, Chemdat Yamim, points out that the relationship between Moses and Aaron, was highly unusual. Under normal circumstances, when vying for the limelight or aspiring to a high position, competitors are invariably ruthless, acting as if they are prepared to swallow their rivals alive. They are only too happy to seize the top position by any means possible, and quash the opposition by any and all means.

Moses, however, was meek, so much so, that he refused to accept the position of leader, because he felt his brother more qualified. Therefore, when Aaron met his brother upon Moses’ return to Egypt after fleeing to Midian for many years, Aaron recognized that he was greeting the man who basically would depose him from the top leadership position, which he had been faithfully fulfilling during the 40 years of Moses’ absence. Aaron was now being asked to assume a lower position, to serve as an assistant to his younger brother, Moses.

There can be no more fitting test of a person’s greatness and mettle, than to assume a demotion of authority with equanimity. Yet Aaron accepted the lesser position, not only with love, but with genuine happiness. The Midrash states that when G-d told Moses that his brother Aaron will see him and will rejoice, G-d was actually informing Moses: Are you concerned that Aaron will be upset? To the contrary, you will discover that he will be only too happy. The mission of redeeming the Jewish people is his primary concern, everything else is secondary. The responsibilities that Moses and Aaron were to assume and share, were not to be seen as a compromise, but rather a fulfillment of separate duties, allowing each to fulfill what the other lacks.

When Aaron goes out to greet Moses upon Moses’ arrival in Egypt, Aaron meets his brother at the Mountain of G-d and kisses him. The Midrash in Shemot Rabbah 5, says that at that moment, חֶסֶד, loving kindness and truth met, and that righteousness and peace kissed each other (Psalms 85:11). The rabbis state that חֶסֶד is represented by Aaron and אֶמֶת, truth, is represented by Moses.

Not only did the two brothers fulfill separate but complementary roles, they also had different approaches to the task at hand. The Talmud in Sanhedrin 7b suggests that Moses’ determination to achieve success was more like “hell or high water,” and “let the law pierce the mountain.” Aaron’s disposition was to pursue peace and to instill peace between man and his fellow man.

The rabbis portray Aaron as a man of compromise. The Talmud in Sanhedrin 7a, says that when Aaron saw that Hur, his nephew, Miriam’s son, had been murdered for trying to stop the rebels from worshiping the calf, he thought to himself, that if he were killed by the people for resisting their idolatrous actions, the people would never be able to achieve forgiveness. Therefore, Aaron concluded that it was preferable for him to “worship” the Golden Calf and take the blame upon himself, in the hope that the people would be forgiven. As Rashi states, Aaron purposely compromised himself by manufacturing the Golden Calf. The Midrash in Leviticus Rabbah 10:3 further underscores Aaron’s selflessness attributing the following thoughts to Aaron: It is preferable that the ugliness be attributed to me, rather than to the people of Israel.

Rabbi Filber points out that compromise itself is not at all a negative quality, but must always be done with forethought and care. This is precisely where we see how well Moses and Aaron complemented each other. Moses served as the man of truth, while Aaron acted as the man of peace. To make certain that neither of them went overboard, they served each other as a system of checks and balances.

Rabbi Filber points out that never do we find that Aaron was actually punished for the sin of the Golden Calf. To the contrary, his status is elevated after the rebellion and he soon assumes the exalted position of High Priest. Even Moses refuses to condemn Aaron, but rather asks gently, Exodus 32:21: “What did this people do to you, that you brought a grievous sin upon it?,” implying that the people were so out of control, that Aaron was totally helpless to stop the rebellion.

It was the unlikely melding of the strong and firm personality of Moses and the loving compromising qualities of Aaron that constituted the proper balance in this extraordinarily delicate situation, and succeeded in staving off what most likely would have been the total destruction of all the people.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of Esther is observed on Wednesday, March 4th, 2015 from dawn to nightfall. Purim is observed this year on Wednesday night, and Thursday, March 4th-5th, 2015.

The festival of Purim marks the celebration of the great salvation of the Jews of the Persian empire from the hands of the evil Haman in the year 520-519 BCE. For more information about Purim and its special observances, click here.