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Nicolas Poussin's Adoration of the Golden Calf

Aaron, Moses’ brother, is presented with a nigh-impossible dilemma. Moses has ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Tablets of the Law from God, but he is apparently delayed in returning. The people are highly agitated by Moses’ delay and start clamoring for a new god. According to the Midrash, Hur, Aaron’s brother-in-law and co-leader during Moses’ absence refuses to give in to the demands of the crowd. He is subsequently killed by the enraged mob. Aaron fears he may be the next victim of the unruly crowd.

Aaron then commands that the crowd gather all the gold in their families’ possession and bring it to him. The crowd obliges. Aaron throws the gold into the fire and out comes the infamous Golden Calf, which members of the crowd rapidly announce to be Israel’s new god, just a number of weeks after they had heard the voice of God commanding them not to worship anybody or anything else.

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Aaron, not missing a beat, builds an altar and declares that the next day will be a festival. God is furious with the development, threatens to destroy the entire nation and rebuild a new one from Moses and his descendants. Moses defends the nation of Israel, God relents and disaster is averted.

One of the fundamental questions is what was Aaron thinking? How could he facilitate the creation and worship of an idol? He must have known this was wrong.

The Bechor Shor on Exodus 30:2 explains that the people of Israel weren’t asking for a new “god” but rather for a new leader to replace Moses. (The word Elohim in Hebrew can carry both meanings). Aaron wanted to stall the process in the hope that Moses’ return would make the request mute. Aaron was hesitant to name some other distinguished personage as the new leader, for when Moses would return, the new leader may not want to relinquish his new appointment, which in turn would lead to fighting and bloodshed. Likewise, if Aaron did nothing, the people themselves would appoint a leader, leading to the same situation. If Aaron were to appoint himself, Moses might think he was illegitimately usurping power.

Whatever path he might have chosen would have ended in disaster. Therefore, Aaron came up with the idea of asking for the peoples’ gold as a delaying tactic. He was hoping they wouldn’t be so eager to part with their riches. When they did, he used it to construct an empty symbol, and even then he continued to delay things announcing that the celebration will be held the next day. His hope was that if he stalled, occupying the mob with empty and worthless pursuits instead of creating a leadership battle when Moses would return, the situation would then be defused more easily. He may have been right and that might have been the best path he could have taken from a variety of unsavory choices.

May we only be challenged with a variety of good choices.

Shabbat Shalom

Dedication: To Pesach cleaning. Now it begins.

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Ben-Tzion Spitz is a former Chief Rabbi of Uruguay and current candidate for Knesset with the Zehut party. He is the author of ten books on biblical themes and over 700 articles and stories dealing with biblical and rabbinic themes at his blog ben-tzion.com. Ben-Tzion is a graduate of Yeshiva University and received his Master’s in Mechanical Engineering from Columbia University.