Every year when Parshat Ki-Tisa comes around, I find myself “staring” anew at the verses describing the events of “Chet Ha-egel” – the sin of the golden calf – trying to understand what happened to Bnei Yisrael. How did this nation that had heard a mere forty days earlier the words of G-d “I am the Lord you G-d who took you out of the land of Egypt” create an idol of gold and declare in front of it: “These are your gods, O Israel, who have brought you up from the land of Egypt”?
More perplexing however than the desires, requests and actions of the nation regarding this incident, are the actions of Aharon Hacohen. A simple reading of the text does more than suggest that Aharon was actively responsible for the idea of creating a golden calf and declaring a holiday in its honor the next day.
Aharon said to them, “Remove the golden earrings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters and bring them [those earrings] to me.”
He took [them] from their hand[s], fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made it into a molten calf, upon which they said: “These are your gods, O Israel, who have brought you up from the land of Egypt!
When Aharon saw [this], he built an altar in front of it, and Aharon proclaimed and said: “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.”
When Moshe descends Har Sinai, after breaking the tablets and shattering the idol, he immediately turns to Aharon with what seems as an accusing question and asks: “What did this people do to you that you brought [such] a grave sin upon them?“
At the end of the chapter, the Torah itself states: “Then the Lord struck the people with a plague, because they had made the calf that Aaron had made,” once again directing at least half of the blame in the direction of Aharon.
Moshe as well in his words in Sefer Devarim says: “And with Aharon, the Lord was very furious, to destroy him; so I prayed also for Aharon at that time.”
Yet despite all of the above quotes, it is peculiar that ultimately Aharon is not punished for his actions surrounding chet ha’egel. On the contrary, at least according to many opinions, it is after chet ha’egel that Aharon is chosen for the role of Cohen Gadol.
The role played by Aharon in the events of Chet Ha’egel has engaged all the commentators of Chumash through the ages and although it is beyond the scope of this shiur to textually analyze the many different approaches, it is worthwhile mentioning some of the main approaches.
Rashi consistently claims in his commentary that the motives of Aharon were to stall the idol worship as much as possible in the hope that Moshe would return in the interim. In truth, Rashi, based on Chazal, shifts the brunt of the blame for chet ha’egel on the erev rav (the large group of non-Israelites that accompanied Bnei Yisrael when they left Egypt) and on the “satan” (yetzer hara).
The Abarbanel, though accepting that Aharon’s motives were pure in that he was trying to buy time by co-operating with the people in the hope that Moshe would return, said that Aharon was held fully responsible for what followed after the golden calf was created. The Abarbanel goes so far as to say that chet ha’egel was indeed the primary sin committed by Aharon that ultimately was the cause for him not entering Eretz Yisrael.
Rav Hirsch as well claims that it was incumbent on Aharon to have stood firm in face of the theological collapse of the Bnei Yisrael and not give in at all to the idolatrous desires of the people. Rav Hirsch explains at length the importance of the requirement of the Torah from us to raise ourselves up to the standards and demands of the word of G-d and not in any way to compromise those standards and lower the Torah down to our level.
I would like to expand however on the approach of Chazal to Aharon’s behavior based on the Gemara in Masechet Sanhedrin 7a which echoes a different voice.
The gemara there states:
A difference of opinion is expressed by R. Tanchum b. Chanilai, who says that the verse quoted, refers only to the story of the golden calf, as it is written: `And when Aharon saw it, he built an altar before it`. What did he actually see? — R. Benyamin b. Yaphet says, reporting R. Eleazar: He saw Hur lying slain before him and said [to himself]: If I do not obey them, they will now do unto me as they did unto Hur, and so will be fulfilled [the fear of] the prophet, Shall the Priest and the Prophet be slain in the Sanctuary of G-d? and they will never find forgiveness. Better let them worship the golden calf, for which offence they may yet find forgiveness through repentance.
The gemara there is discussing the value of compromise in the judicial system, and says that “the verse” quoted before is referring to Aharon’s actions in Chet Ha’egel. The question is though, what verse is the Gemara referring to? Rashi there comments that it is the verse “He that blesses an arbiter [bozea’], contaminates the Lord”. Thus, according to Rashi, the gemara is frowning upon Aharon’s decision. Tosfot there however says that the verse the gemara is referring to is: “The law of truth was in his mouth, unrighteousness was not found in his lips, he walked with Me in peace and uprightness and did turn many away from iniquity” which the gemara refers to Aharon: “Aharon, however, loved peace and pursued peace and made peace between man and man…”.
The Gemara relates this verse specifically to the actions of Aharon in that Aharon was correct in condoning or even actively participating in idol-worship to prevent more dire consequences for Bnei Yisrael.
Although this is in fact a dispute between Rashi and Tosafot there, and intuitively we are inclined towards Rashi’s approach to be intolerant towards compromise in avodat Hashem, Tosfot’s approach is recognizing the complexity of the realities of life and that not always is the dogmatic approach the correct solution. Sometimes the result of stern unwavering policy is irreversible damage.
Though chet ha’egel is an event that occurred so long ago, the implications of its lessons are ever so relevant for us today, both on an individual and national level. And though it is not for everyone or anyone to decide when and where compromise is the necessary course of action, it is important to be aware that sometimes it is necessary.
The Netziv explains that it was precisely because of this deep ahavat Yisrael that Aharon exhibited at chet ha’egel, that he was prepared to defile himself with the sin of avodah zarah in order to save them from a more severe sin, that he acquired the merit to be chosen as the Cohen Gadol, the figure responsible for bestowing blessing and peace on Am Yisrael.