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Aaron and The Golden Calf by James Tissot

Throughout much of the Torah, from Parshat Shemot through Parshat Chukas in Sefer Bamidbar, the Torah conveys a subtle but powerful message about the equal importance of Moshe and Aharon’s different leadership roles. It does so by frequently listing their names together and with one or the other enumerated first (see for instance Shemot 6:13, where Moshe is listed first, vs. 6:26, where Aharon is listed first).

There are, however, two instances where Aharon privately speaks to his brother and makes it clear that he, Aharon, recognizes that Moshe’s role is much greater – by using the title “my master.” One of these instances is in this week’s parsha (the other is in Parshat Beha’alotecha, in Sefer Bamidbar, 12:11, when Aharon asks Moshe to pray for Miriam, who was just struck with leprosy.)


In our parsha, Moshe has confronted Aharon about his role in facilitating the creation and the people’s worship of the golden calf. Aharon replies: “Let not my master’s anger flare up. You know that the people is disposed to evil” (Shemot 32:22, echoing perhaps Bereshit 8:21). The expression “my master” used by Aharon appears as an alternative way of saying: “I confess my mistake.”

We must consider, though, that Aharon’s culpability in the golden calf incident is not clear-cut. As Moshe’s go-between in the midst of an incipient rebellion, he had very few options. Had Moshe been in his brother’s place, would he have fared any better?

It is precisely because of his willingness to be among the people in their worst moments as well as in their best moments that Aharon was mourned by the people more than Moshe (Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer 17, comparing Bamidbar 20:29 and Devarim 34:8).

We should also note two remarkable things about this pivotal episode.

We must admire Moshe’s willingness to challenge his brother, his primary ally in leadership for the prior two years, and to forcefully point out his culpability in a grievous national sin. Not many leaders are capable to being so forceful, with someone so close to them.

And by contritely receiving Moshe’s rebuke, and responding with the term “my master,” Aharon demonstrated great humility and implicitly accepted his guilt. By doing so he played an essential role is helping to restoring order in a situation of great national danger and chaos.

{Adapted by Harry Glazer from Rabbi Francis Nataf’s book Redeeming Relevance In the Book of Exodus: Explorations in Text and Meaning}

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Rabbi Francis Nataf ( is a veteran Tanach educator who has written an acclaimed contemporary commentary on the Torah entitled “Redeeming Relevance.” He teaches Tanach at Midreshet Rachel v'Chaya and is Associate Editor of the Jewish Bible Quarterly. He is also Translations and Research Specialist at Sefaria, where he has authored most of Sefaria's in-house translations, including such classics as Sefer HaChinuch, Shaarei Teshuva, Derech Hashem, Chovat HaTalmidim and many others. He is a prolific writer and his articles on parsha, current events and Jewish thought appear regularly in many Jewish publications such as The Jewish Press, Tradition, Hakira, the Times of Israel, the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Action and Haaretz.