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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Ki Tissa- The Golden Calf and Aharon's Fall

Let’s be blunt: Aharon made the Egel. It is he who Bnei Yisrael turns to after Moshe “delays”, he who advises them to gather gold rings, and he who physically fashions the Golden Calf. Aharon even concludes his role by announcing a feast for God the next day.

Nonetheless, there are discussions in Midrash and Mefarshim explaining Aharon’s positive motivations – and indeed, one can find clues to that effect in the text itself. But on the other hand, one aspect of the story eludes easy explanation, while at the same time pointing to Aharon’s guilt in the Egel story.

For however noble or ignoble his intentions, the description of events he delivers to Moshe does not correspond with the account Chumash actually presents. The Torah describes how . . .

וַיִּקַּח מִיָּדָם, וַיָּצַר אֹתוֹ בַּחֶרֶט, וַיַּעֲשֵׂהוּ עֵגֶל מַסֵּכָה
And he took [the gold] from their hands, and he fashioned it with a graving tool, and made it a molten calf (32:4)

Aharon's report perfectly parallels this pasuk, but with each phrase restated to clear himself of active involvement:
וַיִּתְּנוּ-לִי; וָאַשְׁלִכֵהוּ בָאֵשׁ, וַיֵּצֵא הָעֵגֶל הַזֶּה.
And they gave it to me, and I tossed into the fire, and out came this calf (32:24)

Chumash's narrator paints Aharon an active party: taking, fashioning with tools, making the calf. Aharon, however, prefers a thoroughly passive model: they gave, he merely tossed, out came this calf.

While it is certainly uncomfortable to point out flaws in beloved Biblical characters, Chumash offers several other signs that Aharon indeed sinned. Moshe begins and ends his conversation with Aharon with tones of blame: “What did the people do to you, that you brought upon them a great sin!” (32:21) is followed by the damning conclusion, “for Aharon let them loose for a derision among their enemies.” (32:25) Indeed, the last verse of the perek says it all: “and God struck the people, on their making the calf - which Aharon had made.” (32:35)

The question thus becomes, how did Aharon react to this? How did our Biblical hero respond to mistakes? Parshat Shmini describes a special sin offering, an “eigel ben bakar” (a calf, Vayikra 9:2), brought by Aharon during the Mishkan’s dedication. It is the only mention in Tanakh of a calf brought as Korban Hatat and it is plausible that Aharon is addressing this very point – he is recognizing and doing Teshuva for his role in Egel haZahav. Before assuming his position as Cohen Gadol, he repents and admits his previous misstep.

But one perek later, a more tragic example emerges. Aharon's two sons, Nadav and Avihu bring a foreign flame into the Mishkan, and in response . . .
וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה.
And a flame went out before God and devoured them (Vayikra 10:2)

The unique phraseology is eerily similar to Aharon’s questionable conversation with Moshe:
וָאַשְׁלִכֵהוּ בָאֵשׁ, וַיֵּצֵא הָעֵגֶל הַזֶּה
And I cast it into the flames, and out came this calf (32:23)

This textual link may point to yet another moment of the healing process: Aharon creates a god from flames, his beloved creations are destroyed in Godly flame. (This is not to claim that Aharon's sons suffer the sins of their father, but that their deserved death occurs in a highly symbolic manner - one which Aharon likely did not overlook.) This tragic moment, the low point of Aharon's life, is also his most crowning act of Tshuva.

For a key aspect of Aharon's previous misdeeds was his failure to admit any guilt. He responded with excuses, expending a full three pasukim to attack Bnei Yisrael while distancing himself from his own crimes. Bearing this initial reaction in mind adds to the power and depth of Aharon's response to his sons' death:

וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן
And Aharon was silent (10:3)

Viewed through this light, Aharon's quiet is not (only) the pious acceptance of God's will, but the humble recognition of his faults, his guilts, and the arduous path that is transformation from sinner to Cohen Gadol.

QuickNotes for the Shabbos Table
-Aharon is heavily involved in producing the Egel HaZahav. While there is room to say that his actions were justified, many textual clues point otherwise.
-His account of the story stands in conflict with the Torah's; Moshe twice condemns him; the perek concludes with the word - "the calf, which Aharon made."
-Aharon recognized his fault and sincerely sought Tshuva. The sin-offering of a calf may represent one important sacrifice he makes.
-The loss of two sons to flames may represent another. His silent, noble reaction stands as testimony to Aharon's spiritual transformation.

1 comment:

Chana said...

Readers of this piece may be interested in Aaron's later guilt as connected to this flaw (of inaction, or improper action). To illustrate the main thrust of the idea:

Aaron had been placed in a position where he was supposed to act, to respond, to stop the people from committing a grave sin. He did act, but incorrectly. He aided them in this sin, thinking that he was limiting the damage. Aaron believed himself to be responsible for the sin of the Golden Calf; for the rest of his life, he strove to make up the damage.

"For ever since Aaron had become aware that through the construction of the Golden Calf he had brought about the transgression of Israel, it was his endeavor through the following course of life to atone for his sin. He would go from house to house, and whenever he found one who did not know how to recite his Shema', he taught him the Shema'; if one did not know how to pray he taught him how to pray; and if he found one who was not capable of penetrating into the study of the Torah, he initiated him into it. [634] He did not, however, consider his task restricted 'to establishing peace between God and man,' but strove to establish peace between the learned and the ignorant Israelites, among the scholars themselves, among the ignorant, and between man and wife. [635] Hence the people loved him very dearly, and rejoiced when they believed he had now attained a higher rank than Moses." (Legends of the Jews, "Preparing Aaron for his Impending Death," page 740)

How, then, could Aaron remain silent when he heard Moses refer to his brethren, his people as הַמֹּרִים - fools and rebels? He was the peacemaker! This was the way in which he strove to atone for his sin, his sin of inaction, or rather, of improper action!

And yet, when placed in the same situation, Aaron did not act. Once again he allowed events to take their course. Once again he did not truly intervene... He did not respond to Moses' words, did not defend the people as he ought to have done. If Aaron had truly understood the flaw, the problem with his actions when it came to the Golden Calf, he would not have remained silent. He would have spoken up; he would have argued with Moses, told him that he could not refer to the people in this manner.

[for the rest of the idea, see the full post]