Parshat Ki Tisa tells of one of the most shocking moments of the forty years in the wilderness when – less than six weeks after the greatest revelation in the history of religion, Israel’s encounter with God at Mount Sinai – a golden calf was made. Either this was idolatry or perilously close to it, and it caused God to say to Moses, who was with him on the mountain, “Now do not try to stop Me when I unleash my wrath against them to destroy them” (Exodus 32:10).
What I want to look at here is the role played by Aaron, for it was he who was the de facto leader of the people in the absence of Moses, and he whom the Israelites approached with their proposal: “The people began to realize that Moses was taking a long time to come down from the mountain. They gathered around Aaron and said to him, ‘Make us a god [or an oracle] to lead us. We have no idea what happened to Moses, the man who brought us out of Egypt’ ” (32:1).
It was Aaron who should have seen the danger, Aaron who should have stopped them, Aaron who should have told them to wait, have patience and trust. Instead this is what happened:
Aaron answered them: “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made it a molten calf. Then they said, “This, Israel, is your god, who brought you out of Egypt.” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.” So the next day the people arose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented peace offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink, and got up to indulge in revelry (32:2-6).
The Torah itself seems to blame Aaron – if not for what he did then, at least for what he allowed to happen. “Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control, and thus become a laughingstock to their enemies (32:25).
Aaron was not an insignificant figure. He had shared the burden of leadership with Moses. He had either already become, or was about to be appointed, high priest. What then was in his mind while this drama was being enacted?
Essentially there are three lines of defense in the Midrash, in the Zohar and among the medieval commentators. According to the first, Aaron was playing for time. His actions were a series of delaying tactics. He told the people to take the gold earrings their wives, sons and daughters were wearing, reasoning this to himself: “While they are quarrelling with their children and wives about the gold, there will be a delay and Moses will come” (Zohar). His instructions to build an altar and proclaim a festival to God the next day were likewise intended to buy time, for Aaron was convinced that Moses was on his way.
The second defense is to be found in the Talmud and is based on the fact that when Moses departed to ascend the mountain he left not just Aaron but also Hur in charge of the people (Exodus 24:14). Yet Hur does not figure in the narrative of the golden calf. According to the Talmud, Hur had opposed the people, telling them that what they were about to do was wrong, and was then killed by them. Aaron saw this and decided that proceeding with the making of the calf was the lesser of two evils:
Aaron saw Hur lying slain before him and said to himself, “If I do not obey them, they will do to me what they did to Hur, and so will be fulfilled [the fear of] the prophet, ‘Shall the priest [Aaron] and the prophet [Hur] be slain in the Sanctuary of God?’ ” (Lamentations 2:20). If that happens, they will never be forgiven. Better let them worship the golden calf, for which they may yet find forgiveness through repentance (Sanhedrin 7a).
The third, argued by Ibn Ezra, is that the calf was not an idol at all, and what the Israelites did was, in Aaron’s view, permissible. After all, their initial complaint was, “We have no idea what happened to Moses.” They did not want a god-substitute but a Moses-substitute, an oracle, something through which they could discern God’s instructions – not unlike the function of the Urim and Tumim that were later given to the high priest. Those who saw the calf as an idol, saying, “This is your god who brought you out of Egypt,” were only a small minority – three thousand out of six hundred thousand – and for them Aaron could not be blamed.
So there is a systematic attempt in the history of interpretation to mitigate or minimize Aaron’s culpability – inevitably so, since we do not find explicitly that Aaron was punished for the golden calf (though Abarbanel holds that he was punished later). Yet, with all the generosity we can muster, it is hard to see Aaron as anything but weak, especially in the reply he gives to Moses when his brother finally appears and demands an explanation:
Do not be angry, my lord, Aaron answered. You know how prone these people are to evil. They said to me, “Make us a god who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” So I told them, “Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.” Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf! (32:22-24).
There is more than a hint here of the answer Saul gave Samuel, explaining why he did not carry out the prophet’s instructions. He blames the people. He suggests he had no choice. He was passive. Things happened. He minimizes the significance of what has transpired. This is weakness, not leadership.
What is really extraordinary, therefore, is the way later tradition made Aaron a hero, most famously in the words of Hillel: “Be like the disciples of Aaron, loving peace, pursuing peace, loving people and drawing them close to the Torah” (Avot 1:12).
There are famous aggadic traditions about Aaron and how he was able to turn enemies into friends and sinners into observers of the law. The Sifra says that Aaron never said to anyone, “You have sinned” – all the more remarkable since one of the tasks of the high priest was, once a year on Yom Kippur, to atone for the sins of the nation. Yet there is none of this explicitly in the Torah itself. The only prooftext cited by the Sages is the passage in Malachi, the last of the prophets, who says about the kohen in general: “My covenant was with him, life and peace … he walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin” (Malachi 2:5-6).
But Malachi is talking about priesthood in general rather than the historical figure of Aaron. Perhaps the most instructive passage is the Talmudic discussion (Sanhedrin 6b) as to whether arbitration, as opposed to litigation, is a good thing or a bad thing. The Talmud presents this as a conflict between two role models, Moses and Aaron: “Moses’s motto was: Let the law pierce the mountain. Aaron, however, loved peace and pursued peace and made peace between man and man.”
Moses was a man of law, Aaron of mediation (not the same thing as arbitration but considered similar). Moses was a man of truth, Aaron of peace. Moses sought justice, Aaron sought conflict resolution. There is a real difference between these two approaches. Truth, justice, law: these are zero-sum equations. If X is true, Y is false. If X is in the right, Y is in the wrong. Mediation, conflict resolution, compromise, the Aaron-type virtues, are all attempts at a non-zero outcome in which both sides feel that they have been heard and their claim has, at least in part, been honored.
The Talmud puts it brilliantly by way of a comment on the phrase “Judge truth and the justice of peace in your gates” (Zechariah 8:16). On this the Talmud asks what the phrase “the justice of peace” can possibly mean. “If there is justice, there is no peace. If there is peace, there is no justice. What is the ‘justice of peace’? This means arbitration.” Now let’s go back to Moses, Aaron and the golden calf. Although it is clear that God and Moses regarded the calf as a major sin, Aaron’s willingness to pacify the people – trying to delay them, sensing that if he simply said “No” they would kill him and make it anyway – was not wholly wrong. To be sure, at that moment the people needed a Moses, not an Aaron. But under other circumstances and in the long run they needed both: Moses as the voice of truth and justice, Aaron with the people skills to conciliate and make peace.
That is how Aaron eventually emerged in the long hindsight of tradition, as the peacemaker. Peace is not the only virtue, and peacemaking not the only task of leadership. We must never forget that when Aaron was left to lead, the people made a golden calf. But never think, either, that a passion for truth and justice is sufficient. Moses needed an Aaron to hold the people together. In short, leadership is the capacity to hold together different temperaments, conflicting voices and clashing values.
Every leadership team needs both a Moses and an Aaron, a voice of truth and a force for peace.