Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text-Shmot, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
When Moshe ascends Mount Sinai to receive the first set of Tablets of Testimony, he leaves his brother Aharon, together with Chur, in charge of the people. Nearly forty full days later, the Israelites grow restless over Moshe’s prolonged absence and confront Aharon with the demand: “Rise up, make for us gods who will go before us, for Moshe – this man who brought us out of the land of Egypt – we do not know what has become of him!”
In response, Aharon directs the people to “Remove the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, sons and daughters, and bring them to me.”
Aharon then takes the gold which he receives, fashions it with an engraving tool into a molten calf and proclaims: “A festival for the Lord tomorrow!”
When Moshe descends the mountain, he confronts Aharon and exclaims: “What has this people done to you that you brought upon it such a grievous sin?”
Aharon responds by pleading with his brother: “Let not my master be angry, you know that this people is disposed towards evil.”
Aharon then recounts the nation’s demand and closes with the statement: “And I said to them, ‘Who has gold?’ They removed it and gave it to me, I threw it into the fire, and this calf emerged .”
Aharon’s behavior seems unconscionable!
Why does Moshe’s brother apparently fail so miserably in his leadership role at the foot of Sinai?
Why does Aharon accede to the nation’s demand without argument and create the golden calf ? Should he not have attempted to dissuade the people from their ill-advised, destructive path?
When confronted by Moshe, how can Aharon defend his actions with the strange claim: “I threw it [the gold] into the fire, and this calf emerged”? The text clearly states that Aharon deliberately “fashioned” the gold which he received into a molten calf.
In the aftermath of the chet ha’egel, the active perpetrators are executed and the entire nation is threatened with serious punishment. Aharon seems to escape, however, with only a reprimand. Even more, he continues to serve for forty years as High Priest and as partner with Moshe in the leadership of the people. How is this equitable?
At face value, the textual evidence against Aharon seems overwhelming. At the same time, however, it is inconceivable that Aharon could be guilty of, at worst, involvement in the serious crime of idolatry and, at best, a misguided attempt to create an intermediary between God and the people – and escape unscathed. In the face of this overwhelming puzzle, a wide range of opinion emerges among the commentaries concerning the intentions and actions of this biblical hero at this critical moment of his career.
Rashi, for example, who elsewhere defends biblical figures in the face of apparent wrongdoing (see Toldot 4, Approaches B), strenuously works to defend Aharon in this difficult circumstance, as well. He quotes a series of Midrashic traditions, each of which offers a different rationale for Aharon’s behavior.
First, mirroring the position found in the Midrash Tanchuma, Rashi claims that Aharon is simply stalling for time. Fully confident that Moshe will shortly return, Aharon deliberately reacts to the people’s demands by directing them to contribute “the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, sons and daughters.” Aharon calculates that the women and children’s reluctance to part with their cherished jewelry will delay the process long enough for Moshe to descend the mountain (the Midrash actually goes a step further by suggesting that Aharon knows that the women, more righteous than the men, will be unwilling to participate in the chet ha’egel ). Aharon underestimates, however, the zealous desire of the perpetrators. When the women refuse to participate, the men immediately contribute their own jewelry towards the project.
Rashi cites a second Midrashic tradition which even maintains that Aharon never actually fashions the golden calf, at all. As soon as Aharon throws the gold into the fire, sorcerers from among the “mixed multitude” who fled Egypt with the Israelites magically cause the golden calf to form. Aharon is thus able to later claim, “I threw it into the fire, and this calf emerged.”
Further in the narrative, Rashi notes a series of Midrashic observations on the phrase “And Aharon saw and he built an altar before it [the golden calf].” What is it, the Midrash Rabba asks, that “Aharon saw”?
- Aharon “saw” the fate of Chur. This tradition is based on Chur’s mysterious disappearance. When Moshe ascends Mount Sinai to receive the first set of tablets he appoints Aharon and Chur to lead the nation in his absence. Chur, however, suddenly and completely vanishes from the scene and is not mentioned again. The Midrash explains that Chur actively objects to the creation of the golden calf and is killed by the people. After witnessing Chur’s fate, Aharon decides to deal with the nation’s demands differently. [The Midrash actually goes a step further and suggests that Aharon is not motivated by concern for his own safety but by fear for the nation. He believes that upon killing both a prophet (Chur) and a priest (Aharon), the people will become totally irredeemable.]
- Aharon saw the possibility of assuming responsibility. It is preferable, Aharon reasons, that I build the altar rather than the people. I will then be responsible for the crime rather than they.
- Aharon saw an additional possibility for delay. Aharon realizes that if he allows the nation to build the altar as a group they will do so quickly. He therefore determines to build it himself, continuing to delay the process in the hope that Moshe will return.
Finally, on the basis of pshat, Rashi defends Aharon through a careful reading of Aharon’s proclamation after he builds the altar: “A festival for the Lord tomorrow!” Firstly, Aharon further delays the nation’s celebration until the next day. Secondly, Aharon uses the term A-do-nai (Lord), the title reserved for the God of Israel. Aharon’s heart, claims Rashi, is directed at all times towards heaven. He is certain that Moshe will return and that the morrow’s celebration will truly be “for the Lord.”
So difficult are the issues surrounding Aharon’s role in the chet ha’egel that many of those commentaries who normally eschew Midrashic interpretation, in favor of a rational approach to the text, in this case adopt elements of the Midrash in their interpretations.
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, for example, accepts as a given the Midrashic view that Aharon’s main goal is delay. Rooting his position in the text, however, Hirsch notes that the very wording of Aharon’s request for gold indicates an expectation of reluctance on the part of the people. In addition, the Torah’s step-by-step description of the creation of the golden calf mirrors Aharon’s slow, methodical response to the people’s demands.
Other pashtanim (commentaries who adhere to the pshat of the text), such as the Rashbam, are conspicuously silent on the issue of Aharon’s role in the chet ha’egel, offering no explanation or excuse for Aharon’s actions.
Some commentaries are able to mitigate Aharon’s behavior through their acceptance of a less onerous approach to the entire episode of the golden calf. As we have noted (see Ki Tissa 2, Approaches B), the Ramban and Ibn Ezra maintain that the Israelites’ intent was not fundamentally idolatrous. Frightened by Moshe’s apparent disappearance, the people demand the appointment (or the creation) of a new leader to take his place. Aharon feels that this request, while misguided, is not totally evil. He therefore determines to “play along” until Moshe returns.
Chizkuni, while adopting the same approach to the sin, offers a fasci-nating alternative insight into Aharon’s reasoning: Aharon rationalizes, The people are asking for a new leader. If I appoint another individual to leadership, when Moshe returns and that individual refuses to relinquish his power, deep division will result within the nation. If, on the other hand, I refuse completely, the people will appoint their own leader and even greater strife will ensue. Finally, if I accept the leadership myself, friction will develop between me and my brother. I will, therefore, occupy the people with various activities, none of which will have any real impact, until Moshe returns.
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch is among those commentaries who paint a picture of developing disaster, as things proceed “from bad to worse.” Aharon recognizes that the nation’s original request is not idolatrous. He also realizes, however, that a thin line separates the people’s initial intent from true idolatrous practice. If he resists and is killed for his efforts, he rationalizes, the people will, “over his dead body…give themselves up to their folly with still greater unrestrained license.”Aharon, therefore, both delays the process and attempts to limit the severity of the crime. On the next day, however, “Aharon sees” that the nation “has already passed across the narrow bridge from the notion of a divine intermediary to that of a real god.” In spite of Aharon’s attempts to forestall complete tragedy, the nation falls into idolatry.
Finally, no analysis of Aharon’s actions in conjunction with the sin of the golden calf would be complete without acknowledging the context to this situation, shaped by Aharon’s personality. As we have previously explained (see Shmot 5, Approaches D; Mishpatim 4, Approaches B3; Tetzave 2, Approaches E2), Aharon is a behavioral “photographic negative” of his brother. Whereas Moshe is direct and blunt almost to the point of being undiplomatic, Aharon is a soft compromiser who desires nothing more than harmony within the nation. How telling that the failures of each of these brothers take place at the extremes of their personalities. Moshe will lose his leadership at Mei Meriva, where, moved to anger by the people’s demand for water, he will strike a rock rather than fulfill God’s command by speaking to it. Aharon’s low point of leadership occurs here, at the foot of Sinai, as the great compromiser compromises once too often . We cannot excuse Aharon’s behavior, but, given his personality, we can understand.
When all is said and done, the issue of Aharon’s involvement in the chet ha’egel is one of those cases where the questions are better than the answers. In such circumstances we are challenged to continue the search for understanding – even as we acknowledge that we may never know the “real truth” until God sees fit to reveal it.