D'var Torah

Shemot | Ki Tisa

When Aaron Failed God (Exodus 32:1-5)

Questions by Joel Cohen

In five brief sentences, the parsha tells the story of how the Golden Calf came to be. The people saw that Moses had not returned on time, they gathered before Aaron and they demanded that he “make for us gods that will go before us.” Next sentence, indeed the very next sentence, Aaron tells them to remove their gold rings and bring them to him. Next sentence, they did. Next sentence, Aaron took their gold belongings and fashioned them into a molten calf, and the people said : “This is your god, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt.” Final sentence of the episode’s five, Aaron built an altar and called out saying, “A festival for God tomorrow.”

The story is clearcut and simple. For whatever reason, maybe out of basic fear, or maybe, difficult as it is to say, a temporary loss of faith himself, Aaron showed no resistance to the mob. He didn’t seek to persuade them of the error of their ways. No, they asked to create a “god” and he acted consistently with their request. But the rabbis say “no.” That’s not what happened — he was engaged in a stall for time so that Moses would return from the Mountain to prove that God and Moses were still there for the House of Israel.

· Why do the rabbis, time and again, resist the notion that our Biblical heroes, such as Aaron (indeed, my great, great grandfather whom I hope to honor every day of my life) are human beings who have human flaws?

· And what does it say about the rabbis’ interpretation of the text — which demonstrates no act or purpose of delay by Aaron — that seems to defy plain meaning?

Rabbi Adam Mintz

Your questions this week are rooted in Parshat Ki Tisa but are issues that need to be addressed throughout the entire Tanach. Allow me to answer the second question first—how can the Rabbis defy the plain meaning of the text? This question is based on our modern sense of literary analysis and criticism which emphasizes the importance of interpreting the literal meaning of a text. Whether we read the Chumash or Hamlet, we want to know what the text means. However, for the rabbis the literal meaning of the text was not the primary function of their interpretative experience. The rabbis who interpreted the text in the early centuries CE and whose writings have been preserved in the numerous midrashim are interested in the lessons that the text teaches us. Even in the medieval period we find Rashi explaining that the entire book of Breishit is included in the Torah in order to strengthen the Jews claim to the Land of Israel. In a different country and almost two hundred years later, the Ramban claims that the book of Breishit is included to teach lessons to Jews in every generation. The rabbis would have been surprised by your question—they never imagined the literal meaning of the text to be a desideratum.

Now, what about Aaron? Why do the rabbis whitewash Aaron’s weakness and implicit participation in the sin of the Golden Calf? Here, there are two parts of the answer. First, the rabbis are following the Torah’s lead. The Torah does not hold Aaron responsible for the sin of the Golden Calf so the rabbis do not focus on his faults in the story. I believe that the Torah sees Aaron as the victim of a riotous mob who which insisted on creating a replacement for Moshe. Aaron knew that had he objected, he would have been killed. While this risk has not prevented the great heroes in history from standing up for what is right, at worst Aaron is weak and this is not a sin.

Furthermore, the rabbis see the Biblical characters in “black and white” terms. They are either all good or all bad. This approach is expressed most prominently in their defense of King David following the episode of Bat Sheva. However, it finds expression throughout rabbinic literature. In truth, the rabbis did not make up this approach. The ability to understand and appreciate that people are a complex combination of good and bad is a relatively recent phenomenon encouraged if not originated by the psychoanalysts of the early twentieth century. If one were to study the Greek myths, you would find a similar clear distinction between hero and villain with little room for the villain to do good or the hero to sin. This phenomenon reflects the fact the rabbis did not write in a vacuum but were influenced in a serious way by the world around them.

Eli Popack

There’s a famous Talmudic expression often used in Jewish literature as an opener, “If you would like, I’ll answer you with a verse, and if you’d like otherwise, I’ll answer you with plain logic.”

Joel, you ask from the literal words of the verse, so I will begin with an answer from the literal text, which bothers me more than the Rabbinic explanation.

If indeed, Aaron went through a weak moment, possibly even in his own faith, then not only did he lack in strong leadership, but actually, Aaron was dishonest, with no sense of responsibility. His brother Moses also seems to turn a blind eye, in one of the greatest shows of nepotism attributed to a Biblical hero

Moses descends the mountain, shatters the tablets, grinds the calf, and turns to Aaron. Here, if I were Moses, I would have asked “How did you make an idol, when you just heard at Mt. Sinai, that this is forbidden?” But instead Moses asks him, (Exodus 32:21) “What did this people do to you that you brought a grave sin upon them?!” Following a literal understanding, Moses seemed to skip an important question. Actually, he prefaces his question with, “What did they do to you that you did this to them?” already implying that Aaron was either forced into this, or maliciously leading them astray in revenge for something they did to him. Why is he so sure that Aaron didn’t make the golden calf out of lack of faith??

The worst part is Aaron’s answer in the next verse. “”Let not my lord’s anger grow hot! You know the people, that they are disposed toward evil.” Their fault, huh? What ever happened to responsibility for your actions? Who asked them for the gold and silver? Who threw it into the fire?

Then Moses punishes the people involved. Some are killed by the sword. Some die after being forced to drink the water of the ground up Golden Calf (32:20). Many more die in a plague with which G-d afflicts the people “because they had made the calf that Aaron had made.” (32:35).

And Aaron? What’s his punishment? He is appointed High Priest! The people are smitten by a plague “because they had made the calf that Aaron had made,” yet the mastermind of this ridiculous plan is rewarded with priesthood for himself and all his children.

This book has to make some sense, and I don’t think that it was to teach a lesson in shirking responsibility and getting away with it through nepotism. If that be the case, these two brothers serve as the worst example of leadership, and should go down in history as crooked and evil. “The Five Books of the Nepotistic” should not be studied by billions of people, and definitely not read with a blessing before and after.

The literal words of the verse answer the questions themselves.

Firstly, “Because they had made the calf that Aaron had made.” Who made it, them or Aaron?

Secondly, the people witness a phenomenal show of the supernatural, a calf of gold emerging on its own two feet from a fire, and Aaron announces “The party will be tomorrow!” What sort of anti-climax is that? With no intention to compare, but could you imagine if on the evening of November 4th, the bars would have closed and hung signs, “We know you just witnessed one of the greatest moments in American history, but we think you should get some sleep. The party will be tomorrow”?

Could it be that it was the people, not Aaron, who turned the molten gold which Aaron threw in a pot into a deity worthy of being served? Could it be that there is some sort of intentional “buying time” going on here? Can we, the progressive and tolerant, consider that perhaps a great plan just didn’t work out as Aaron planned? Could it be that G-d already clued Moses in on who actually was responsible, when he told him (32:7-8 – a few verses earlier), “Go, descend, for your people that you have brought up from the land of Egypt have acted corruptly….they (plural) have made themselves a molten calf!”


The sixth of the Thirteen Principles of Faith written by Maimonides (1135-1204, great Jewish philosopher, rabbi, and physician in Spain and Egypt) is to believe that “G-d communicates to mankind through prophecy.”

To become a prophet, Maimonides lists the following criteria: one must be wise, and of a clear and lucid mind; of impeccable character, and utterly in control of one’s passions and desires; of a calm and joyous constitution; one must shun materialism and the frivolities of life, devoting oneself entirely to knowing and serving G-d.

It makes sense that only one who is entirely devoted to G-d, with no remnant of materialistic passion, or any sense of ego, can be a positive conduit for Divine communication.

Yet, Judaism believes that prophecy is a real thing. In other words, Judaism believes that it is possible for a human being to reach such a great spiritual level. This is why Jews of all the generations have what is called “Emunat Tzadikkim-Belief in the Righteous”. This is the belief that there are righteous people who are divinely inspired; who’s every limb at every moment of their life is a conduit to the Divine will.

Rabbi Mintz writes that the sages would be surprised by your question. I believe that truly, anyone who knows that Aaron was chosen as the only person in his day to be allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, with whom G-d communicated directly several laws of the Torah, and was one of the 48 prophets, would be surprised by your question. In fact, anyone who believes in the full potential of people would be surprised by your question.


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