Parshat Ki Tissa (Parah)
The act was unthinkable and outrageous. Right in the middle of the instructions for building the tabernacle, the holy dwelling of the Lord, the Israelites commit what can only be described as a heinous crime against the God who had taken them out of Egypt, whisked them across the Red Sea and spoke to them directly from atop Mount Sinai. They violated the second commandment – and worshipped an idol, a golden calf.
With all the explanations, justifications and apologetics for this act, one person’s actions seem to slip by under the radar without a bleep. That is Aharon.
Aharon, Moshe’s older brother, the future high priest, the beloved peacemaker of the contentious Israelites, plays a major role in this fiasco yet seems to come out unscathed.
The text is somewhat ambiguous. The people are upset because Moshe has gone up the mountain and doesn’t seem to be coming back. This gives the impression that they are not looking for another God, but rather for a flesh and blood leader they can see who will tell them what to do.
On the one hand, this lessens THEIR sin – they are a bunch of insecure children whose parent has gone away and left them alone. They need their teddy bear, their security blanket, their Moshe or some reasonable facsimile.
On the other hand, this makes the substitute they receive even more inappropriate. A golden image of anything is certainly not flesh and blood and certainly can’t tell them what to do and where to go. All it can do is stand there and receive their adulation, if they so desire.
This, in turn, makes Aharon’s sin even greater. Why give them something that is not only against the Torah that they have just received but is also totally useless for what they need?
Ah, the rabbis say, Aharon was just trying to stall them, hoping that Moshe would come back and quell the disquietude. We see this in his command to bring him gold and jewelry from their wives and children – the thinking being that the women certainly wouldn’t part with their jewelry for something so ridiculous. But they did. Then he throws it all into a cauldron and – – and here we have a problem.
According to the story he crafts a calf for them and says, Here is your god, Israel, who took you out of Egypt. If that were correct – the evidence would be damning. But the Hebrew is different. The sentence says: “And THEY said, Here is your god, Israel.” Who is the “they”?
The rabbis say they are the fools among the people, or the rabble that escaped Egypt with the Hebrews. In any case it was not Aharon.
Whatever the answer, Moshe comes down from the mountain and is furious. But he is also biased. He comes to Aharon and says, what did the PEOPLE DO TO YOU that you made them sin in this way? It’s like the Irish priest driving in the Lincoln tunnel and smashes into a car that is stopped in front of him. The Irish cop in the tunnel runs up, sees who’s involved and says, “And how fast was that man driving backwards when he smashed into you, Father?”
What did the people do to you, Moshe asks, and Aharon says, Well, you know how bad they are. They insisted, so I threw all their gold into a cauldron and SHAZAM, out came this calf. As if he had nothing to do with it.
3000 people who danced and reveled before the idol are dispatched. And then a plague takes out a few thousand more. And Aharon? He becomes high priest.
Is this presentation biased? To some extent. But the fact remains that Aharon is not punished. There is no question of his belief in the one God and his loyalty to Moshe. He WAS probably trying to buy time in his actions. But why a calf?
Aharon was a peacemaker. One interpretation is that he made it to keep the rabble quiet, but they called to the Israelites saying this is your god. Maybe. But even if this is an option, it does not exonerate him. You don’t go and violate a commandment given specifically by God from the mountain top!
Perhaps his exoneration was nepotism. Or seeing the greater good. Sometimes our leaders err. Sometimes they sin. In the story of King David and Bathsheba, it is clear that by all moral standards David sinned by taking another man’s wife and making sure he died. Even the prophet Natan says he sinned! Yet the number of books and articles written “proving” that David did not sin is staggering. Why is this so?
Because we want to believe in our leaders. At least we used to. Our leaders, especially the ones who form the backbone of our history, have to be good, trustworthy, honest, and as flawless as rewritten history can make them, so that we feel good about ourselves.
With the breaking of codes of silence around the private lives of our leaders, and with the shameless probing into the gatkes and girdles of our various leaders, we now realize that our leaders are flesh and blood like us. And in the process, we have lost the awe and respect we had for those who determine our lives.
Aharon’s real sin probably lies in his denial of his part in the calf escapade. He was wrong and he did not own up. Aside from this misstep, Aharon definitely deserved to be high priest – no one was more fitting than he, perhaps not even Moshe, but he was not perfect. Which is also good to remember. Perfect beings are angels. To be human is to err.