In this week’s Torah portion of Ki Sisa we have the infamous episode of the sin of the golden calf and Aharon’s involvement. What was going through his mind, what exactly did he do, and how much was he really involved?
The medrish Pirkei diRebbe Eliezer (45) paints a picture of what enfolded: “Rebbe Shimon ben Yochai said that when Hashem revealed Himself to Moshe from within the bush and sent him to Egypt, Moshe said before Hashem, ‘Master of the World swear to me that whatever I ask of You to do, You shall do, so that I won’t say something to Pharaoh, You won’t do it, and he will kill me.’ He swore to him that whatever request he makes he will fulfill except for two things: going into The Land, and not dying…
When the Jews accepted the commandments, after 40 days they forgot their G-D. They said to Aharon, the Egyptians use to carry their god, serve it and sing before it and they saw it in front of their eyes. Make us a god like the god of the Egyptians etc. They went to the friends of Moshe, Aharon, and Chur, the son of their sister (Miriam)…
Since Chur (on his father’s side) was from the tribe of Yehuda, and was one of the leaders of the generation, he started rebuking the Jews with harsh words. The lower echelon of Jewish society stood up against him and murdered him. Aharon saw that Chur was murdered and he built an alter as it says, ‘And Aharon saw’. What did he see? That Chur, the son of his sister was murdered, and he built an alter as it says, ‘And he built an alter.’ Aharon judged a judgment by himself and said, ‘If I tell them to give me gold and silver, immediately they will bring it, rather I will tell them to give me the earrings of your wives and children and then the whole plan will be spoiled’, as it says, ‘And Aharon told them to take off etc.’ The women heard this, did not want to, and didn’t accept to give the earrings to their husbands. They said we don’t want to be involved in making such a decrepit and disgusting thing that has no power to save us. (The Be’ur Maspik [in some editions it is called Bayis Chadash] explains ‘that what was going through Aharon’s mind was that women and children are more protective of their jewelry and will refuse to give them up, and in the meantime Moshe will come down and the whole situation will dissipate.’ In fact the women were against the whole plan of their husbands.) Hashem rewarded them with a reward in this world that they observe Rosh Chodesh more than men do (by not doing strenuous work, like laundry, on the new month). They also got reward in the World to Come in that they would be resurrected (the Mishna in perek Chelek of Sanhedrin lists the men of the generation in the desert as those that have no share in the World to Come.) The men saw that their wives were not listening to them to give the earrings to their husbands. What did they do? At that time they wore earrings just like Egyptians or Arabs did, they took theirs off and gave them to Aharon… Aharon found amongst all the jewelry a head band of gold which had Hashem’s Holy name written on it and also a picture of a calf inscribed in it. That was the only thing he threw into the pot of fire. As it says, ‘they have gave to me’ ‘and I threw them into the fire’ it does not say after that but ‘I threw it into the fire.’ (Assumingly, with something so holy, Aharon was assuming or hoping that nothing wrong will come out from it.) The calf came out mooing and the Jews saw this. Rebbe Yehuda says Samel (Satan) entered into it and started moving to seduce the Jews… the Jews saw it and started to kiss it, bow down and sacrifice to it.”
The rest of the Medrish goes on to say that Hashem told Moshe Rabbeinu that the Jewish people forgot His limitless power and all the wonders He did for them in Egypt and at the Red Sea, and therefore they are not My people anymore but they are yours to deal with. Moshe took the tablets of the Ten Commandments which were carved out by Hashem and the Holy letters were carrying the tablets on their own. When Moshe came Towards the bottom of the mountain the letters flew off the tablets and the tablets became too heavy for Moshe to carry so he dropped them to the bottom of the mountain. He then went over to Aharon, seeing what was going on, and asked him, ‘What did you do to this nation? You uncovered them like an adulterous woman that was caught!’ Aharon said back to Moshe, ‘I saw what they did to Chur and I was very much afraid!’ Moshe found that the princes of each tribe and the entire tribe of Levi had no involvement in the golden calf. He took the golden calf, and crushed and burned it to smithereens. He took the ashes, mixed them in water, and forced the Jews to drink it. Whoever had gold lips after they drank showed that they kissed the idol with all their heart, so Moshe ordered the Leviim to kill them. Around 3000 people give or take were executed. Then Hashem sent down destructive angels to wipe out the entire nation and Moshe Rabbeinu had to pray, using the 13 attributes of mercy, in order to save the nation from destruction. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
If not for Aharon “playing along” with the heathens, none of this would have happened. Aharon was a rodef shalom, someone who ran after peace, always dealing with people and their plights and skirmishes. He knew how to talk in a convincing way to make sure everything worked out and was peaceful at the end of the day. Why couldn’t he do the same in this circumstance? Nicely tell them this is inappropriate and the wrong thing to do. Granted, his nephew, Chur, was just slaughtered by these people, but he spoke quite harshly to them. Aharon, the great tzadik, beloved by all, and leader that he was, should have been able to talk them out of it instead of using subterfuge, which didn’t work. How could it be that he didn’t think that even if the women and children refused, the men would act fast and donate their own jewelry to the cause?
Yet the Beur Hamaspik says that Aharon actually saw Chur murdered in cold blood in front of his eyes, as we see at the end of the pasuk. This appears to mean that what Aharon was doing was purely for the sake of Heaven, as he said, “a holiday for Hashem there shall be etc.” That is why the medrish was wondering what he actually saw. And therefore the medrish taught that the pasuk was bringing a defense for Aharon. What did he see to listen to them to make the golden calf? He saw Chur slaughtered before his very eyes and he was afraid lest they do to him what they did to Chur.
We can infer from this medrish and the comments the Be’ur Maspik makes on this medrish that if Aharon would not have seen his nephew, Chur, viciously slaughtered in front of him, then Aharon would have stealthily convinced them to not make the golden calf, rather than going along with their idea with a trick which he hoped would delay the making.
We see from here the impact seeing a traumatizing experience can do to even the greatest of people and the ramifications it has on the masses. Aharon wasn’t held responsible for anything that he did or resulted because he wasn’t trying to do anything wrong and his intent was purely for the sake of Hashem to try to divert the evil plans from coming into fruition but if not for the impact of what he saw he could have made better choices which would have resulted in the sin of the golden calf never happening and its ramifications would never have reverberated until this very day.