As we all know only too well, this week’s Parasha deals with the episode of “The Golden Calf”. I would like to specifically deal with the role of Aharon HaKohen in this parasha. Moshe Rabeinu in Devarim Chapter 9 Verse 20 tells us that:
“Hashem became very angry with Aharon to destroy him, so I prayed also for Aharon at the time”
The above verse clearly indicates that Aharon is considered to have erred, yet I would like to delve into the events and try and understand Aharon’s exact role.
“The people saw that Moshe had delayed in descending the mountain, and the people gathered around Aharon and said to him, ‘Rise up, make for us gods that will go before us, for this man Moshe who brought us up from the land of Egypt – we do not know what became of him’. Aharon said to them, ‘Remove the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, sons and daughters, and bring them to me.’ The entire people removed the gold rings that were in their ears, and brought them to Aharon.
He took it from their hands and bound it up in a cloth, and fashioned it into a molten calf. They said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt.’
Aharon saw and built an altar before him. Aharon called out and said, ‘A festival for Hashem tomorrow’.
They arose early the next day and offered up elevation-offerings and brought peace offerings. The people sat to eat and drink, and they got up to revel.”
(Shemot Chapter 32 Verses 1-6)
“Moshe said to Aharon, ‘What did this people do to you that you brought a grievous sin upon it?’
Aharon said, ‘Let not my master’s anger flare up. You know that the people are disposed towards evil. They said to me, ‘Make us a god that will go before us, for this man Moshe who brought us up from the land of Egypt – we do not know what became of him.’ So 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.’
(Shemot Chapter 32 Verses 22-24)
When browsing through the incident of the golden calf, it appears that Aharon is as guilty as everyone else in this episode. Yet besides the verse in Devarim quoted at the outset, there is no indication in our parasha of Aharon being held directly responsible for the people’s sin, he is not openly punished. Indeed, immediately following Moshe’s dialogue with Aharon, he is conspicuous in his absence from the ensuing events.
Rashi understands the act of the golden calf to be a blatant form of idolatry. However, he takes a very different approach when referring to Aharon and his involvement.
Firstly, Rashi points out that when Aharon asked of the people to bring of their wives jewelry, his intention was simply to delay, not to encourage.
“Aharon said in his heart, ‘the women and children cherish their ornaments; perhaps the matter will be delayed and in the interim Moshe will return'” (Ibid, Ibid, verse 2).
In his commentary to verse 5, Rashi explains as to why Aharon chose the delaying tactic as opposed to direct confrontation:
“‘Aharon saw’ – Many things did Aharon see, he saw Hur the son of his sister, who rebuked them and they killed him. Moreover he said, ‘Better that the transgression be ascribed to me and not to them.’ Further he saw and said, ‘If they themselves build the altar, one will bring a clod and the other the stones, and thus the work will be done at once, whereas if I build it, and I tarry in my work, in the meantime Moshe will arrive'”.
We can therefore see that as far as Rashi is concerned, Aharon had already been made well aware that the direct approach was impracticable to say the least. Better to be seen to be going along with the idea, and hold it up indirectly, than to try and confront the ‘mob’ and be killed, as was Hur, his nephew.
On the very same verse, Rashi does not only explain the rationale behind Aharon’s behavior, he also proves Aharon’s purest intentions:
“‘Aharon called out and said, ‘A festival for Hashem tomorrow’ – But not today, perhaps Moshe will arrive, before they worship it. In addition we can see Aharon’s true intentions by his calling for a ‘festival for Hashem.'”
According to Rashi’s understanding of verse 21, Moshe did not for one moment suspect that Aharon had willingly agreed to participate in this sin:
” ‘Moshe said to Aharon, ‘What did this people do to you that you brought a grievous sin upon it?” – How many afflictions did you suffer with which they punished you, before you brought upon them this sin?”
Although Ramban interprets the sin of the golden calf in a very different way from Rashi, his understanding of Aharon’s role is very similar:
“…The people wanted to have someone in place of Moshe to show them the way. And this was the apology of Aharon. He argued that ‘they merely told me that I should make them elohim who would go before them in your place, my lord, because they did not know what had happened to you, and whether you would return or not. Therefore they needed someone who would show them the way as long a you were not with them, and if perchance you would return they would leave him and follow you as before.’ And so indeed it happened, for as soon as the people saw Moshe, they immediately left the calf and rejected it, and they allowed him to burn it and scatter its powder upon the water, and no one quarreled with him at all. Similarly you will note that he did not rebuke the people nor say anything to them, and yet when he came into the camp and he saw the calf and the dancing, the people immediately fled from before him; and he took the calf and burnt it and scattered its powder upon the water and made them drink of it, and yet they did not protest at all. But if (we were to agree with the interpretation of Rashi, that) the calf were to them in place of a god, it is surely not normal that a person should let his (albeit newly proclaimed) king and god be burnt in fire. ‘Lo, if one burn their abominations before their eyes, would they not stone him?'” (Ibid, Ibid, Verse 1)
Ramban does not see the sin of the golden calf to be one of idolatry, rather a case of misplaced judgment of a situation. The people mistakenly understood that Moshe had died, and wished for a replacement as a mediator between them and Hashem, there was no need for this tangible mediator to be human. The people needed to reach Hashem and thus receive their direction, the calf was intended to replace Moshe, not Heaven forbid, Hashem.
Ramban, in comments made further on, agrees with Rashi in principle that essentially Aharon tried to put the people off. However, he adds significantly, by explaining that during his dialogue with Moshe, Aharon tried to defend the people, by giving perspective to their actions. He explains to Moshe that in essence the people are not idolaters, they simply panicked for leadership because you did not return.
In the light of the comments of both Rashi and Ramban, both of whom see Aharon to have made the best possible attempts in the worse possible situation, how are we to understand the initial verse that we quoted from Devarim. What did Aharon do wrong? Why did Hashem wish to destroy him had it not been for the intervention of Moshe?
Abarbanel in his commentary to Parashat Chukkat suggests that Aharon was not permitted to enter Eretz Yisrael, not because of the incident of Mai Meriva, but due to his involvement in the events of the golden calf. This was his eventual punishment, yet why was he punished at all?
Aharon was surely not one of the worshippers at the scene of the calf, and he certainly had the best intentions for the people in mind when he acted in the way that he acted. However, since he was ultimately responsible for the people at the time in which these events took place, he must face the consequences. Just as the people who he represented at the time of this incident would never reach Eretz Yisrael; so too their leader must bare the full responsibilities of being their leader.
In the same way, Abarbanel explains that Moshe Rabbeinu could not enter Eretz Yisrael, because he was directly responsible for the incident concerning the spies.
We can therefore deduce from the comments of Abarbanel that it is clear that Aharon did not sin as the people had sinned. However, as leader at the time, he is the representative of that very same people, and must therefore be punished. According to the verse in Devarim; Hashem wanted Aharon to be punished immediately, so severe was the transgression. However, Moshe managed to ‘convince’ Hashem not to include Aharon amongst those punished for the sin of the golden calf, yet as Abarbanel has pointed out it was a ‘delayed sentence’, that was carried out in the end. Aharon and Moshe ultimately paid the price of leadership.
If, however, we are to understand the events that took place in accordance with the interpretation of Rashi, (i.e. that the people intended to worship an idol) then we may suggest that the verse in Devarim is clarifying for us that in truth Aharon should have taken the same path as Hur, his nephew. That there are some sins, such as idolatry, that demand of the leaders at the time to make a stand, however practically ineffective that stand may be. Had Aharon totally opposed the acts of the people, and had they turned on him just as they turned on Hur, he may well have been killed as a result, however, the Torah narrative would stand as testimony forever more that certain actions are unacceptable.
In hind site, the path that Aharon chose to deal with the developing situation proved to be unsuccessful, despite his good intentions. The people still managed to do what they originally intended to do. Had Aharon directly opposed them, then at the least the generations that followed would know exactly where the borderlines are. That there are some sins that cannot be overlooked, that an educational statement must be made there and then.
Yet, whether we see Aharon’s punishment to be based on his ultimate responsibilities, or whether we see by his being punished an indication that he should have acted differently; we cannot finish this shiur without pointing to a message in the Torah, that to my mind is of the greatest significance.
We know that the Kohen Gadol on Yom Hakippurim wears white garments during the avodot specifically relating to the holiness of that very day. We also know the reason as to why the Kohen Gadol wears white and not the usual gold garments. Our Rabbis teach us that ‘the prosecutor cannot become the defending counsel’. The gold that ‘reminds’ Hashem of the golden calf should not be worn on a Day of Atonement.
This halachik ruling is only strengthened when we know that the existence of Yom Hakippurim is in essence as a direct result of the atonement given for the sin of the golden calf.
Yom Kippur was the day that Moshe returned to the people with the second tablets of stone; the clearest indication that Hashem had in fact forgiven the people for the sin of the golden calf. It therefore makes no sense at all, on a day that originates from the forgiving of a particular sin, to wear gold that would only serve to ‘remind’ Hashem of that sin.
Yet with this ruling in mind, how are we to understand the fact that it is specifically the Kohen Gadol who does the Avodah on that day. It is only the Kohen Gadol who enters the Holy of Holies and stands before the Aron Hakodesh, essentially before the two tablets of stone? If we are to invoke the ruling that ‘the prosecutor cannot become the defending counsel’ then surely the last person we want to represent us on a day that we were forgiven for the sin of the golden calf is the Kohen Gadol – Aharon Hakohen? What are we to deduce from the fact that specifically Aharon HaKohen, only Aharon Hakohen, represents the people on Yom Hakippurim. Specifically the man ‘in charge’ at the time of the events of the golden calf represents the people on the Day of Atonement?
To my mind the message is of absolute importance. Whether we understand Aharon’s eventual punishment in accordance with the Abarbanel – that he is punishable because he is ultimately responsible; or whether we understand Aharon’s guilt because as Rav Hirsch suggests – ‘He should have been ready to risk his life by opposing the event by word and deed’. Nevertheless the ultimate message of the Torah is that specifically Aharon will atone for the people.
Despite the risks of taking responsibility – the fact that ultimately – ‘the buck stops here’. Despite the fact that people will always be wiser with hind site. Despite the fact that with leadership comes responsibility, and with that responsibility the ultimate consequences. Nevertheless, Aharon is vindicated, because despite the risks involved we must be encouraged to take those responsibilities. We must be encouraged to endeavor to solve the crises to stand up and be counted.
The Torah teaches us, that on the one hand Aharon sinned, his sin, as we have seen, can be explained in a number of ways. However, it is Aharon, and only Aharon that will represent us on the holiest of days in the Holy of Holies.
There were three million Jews present at the events of the golden calf. Only a fraction of them were actually involved in the sin itself. Yet those masses remained silent until Moshe’s arrival on the scene. Even the tribe of Levi, did not show it’s strength until Moshe arrived. Aharon stood alone; his nephew lay dying by his side. Aharon took control of the situation, and made the best of the worst-case scenario. Many would conclude, that it is better to not get involved than do as Aharon, and pay the consequences; thus the Torah clearly tells us otherwise. Specifically on this day, on the Day of Atonement for the sin of the golden calf, Aharon will represent the people; he is truly the most worthy to be entering the Holy of Holies.