episode of the Golden Calf is mystifying and shameful.
when the people saw that Moshe delayed in coming down from the mountain, the
people gathered around Aharon and said to him:
“Arise, make us gods that shall go before us;
for [as for] this man Moshe who brought us up out of Egypt, we do not
know what has become of him.” And
Aharon said to them, “Take off the golden earrings
which are in the ears of your wives,
your sons and your
daughters, and bring them to me.” (Shemot 32:1-2)
Particularly disconcerting is the behavior of Aharon. How could this man, who had been chosen by Hashem to stand by Moshe’s side throughout their contacts with Pharaoh, the miracles, the plagues and the splitting of the sea, now be involved in constructing a Golden Calf, and an altar before it? Subsequently, why was he not removed from his position as Moshe’s assistant? Furthermore, why was he appointed as Kohen Gadol (high priest), and the priesthood passed on to his descendants?
based on the Midrash, suggests that Aharon did not expect the
women and children to surrender their jewelry, hoping that the whole plan
would collapse and in the interim Moshe would arrive.
Unfortunately, the men immediately removed their own earrings, and the
calf was made.
midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 10:4), says that Miriam’s son Hur
first tried to prevent the idolatry, but the mob killed him.
Then, they approached Aharon:
“What shall I do? Behold,
they killed Hur, who was a prophet. Now,
if they kill me, a priest, the verse ‘If there be killed in the sanctuary
priest and prophet’ (Eichah 2:20) will be fulfilled, and they will be
was not merely rationalizing his fear of death.
(R. Shmuel Eliezer ben Judah HaLevi Edels, 1555-1631), in his commentary to Sanhedrin
6b-7a, explains: The Kohen (priest)
and the Navi (prophet) are needed to guide the people in establishing
their connection to Hashem. If
the people kill both, this demonstrates that they do not desire a relationship
with Hashem, and their punishment will be irreversible.
Navi dedicates his life to fighting for a moral ideal which totally
engages him. His focus is on what ought to be. It is otherwise with the
Kohen who has a broader outlook on life and concerns himself with what can
people that has lost – has destroyed – its vision of what ought
to be, Aharon reasoned, can be rehabilitated only if they retain a sense of
what can be. So, the
practical and peace-loving Aharon accepted the people as they were, and tried
to save them. After the calf was
made, Aharon decided to build the altar himself slowly, stalling for
time until Moshe’s return. His
plan was to delay the actual worship of the calf. He reminded the Children of
Israel that they had not severed their ties to Hashem. Then he
dedicated the altar: And Aharon proclaimed and he said:
“Tomorrow is a feast to Hashem” (Shemot 32:5). The midrash
continues: As an ultimate act of
self-sacrifice, Aharon resolved to direct the unfolding of events himself: “Better that the offense be attached to me, and not to
Aharon truly prepared to compromise the worship of Hashem, so as to save the Children of Israel?
We are taught that one person may not commit even a minor offense in
order to save another from culpability, no matter how grave the transgression
(Shabbat 3b; Shulchan
Aruch Orach Chaim 254:6). Rather,
the midrash concludes with a parable:
prince’s heart was filled with pride and he took a sword to pierce his
father. Said his pedagogue to him:
“Do not trouble yourself. Give
it to me, and I will pierce him.” The
king said to him, “I know how
your intentions were directed: better
to attach the offense to yourself and not to my son. [I swear] by your life that you will not leave my palace.”
golden calf was a weapon, and Aharon incapacitated it by taking it into
his own hands. Aharon did not
commit any sin, but rather knew that Hashem would understand his intentions.
He took the leadership role and redirected the people’s focus, always
emphasizing the attainability of teshuva.
presumed disappearance of Moshe created a crisis in leadership,
a vacuum which Hur tried to fill, however unsuccessfully. Without Moshe, the
prophet, the Children of Israel felt they had lost all attachment to Hashem.
To be sure, this was based, as R. Yehudah HaLevi explains, on a
misunderstanding of Moshe’s function. However, the newly-freed people could
almost be forgiven for assigning to Moshe the role of intercessor. Certainly, the calf was no substitute for Moshe.
question was: How to teach
them the truth? The solution was
provided, step-by-step, by Aharon, the Kohen, “the one who loves
peace and pursues peace” (Avot 1:12).
He provided leadership; he
accepted the people as they were; he
both for the individual and for the nation, occurs when we lose our
ideals, our vision. The path to teshuva
begins only when we see, or are shown by the disciples of Aharon, that
repentance is possible.