Aaron’s construction of the Golden Calf has always perplexed me. It seems as though Aaron gets away with a free pass, while everyone else who actually worships the calf is punished. Surely tradition teaches וְלִפְנֵי עִוֵּר לֹא תִתֵּן מִכְשֹׁל “do not place a stumbling block in front of a blind person” (Lev. 19:14). What greater stumbling block could one put, than to cause another to worship idols? Yet, Aaron gets off with hardly a reprimand. Asked in another way: How could Aaron of all people cave him to popular demand? Where was his courage? Surely, as a leader and a prophet of his people, how could he build the Golden Calf?
The question is hardly original. Many of our greatest commentators led by Nachmanides and Ibn Ezra, raised the same question.
These scholars claim that the calf was never intended to be an idol, but a mouthpiece, a pedestal for God to dwell–perhaps not unlike the cherubim of the Tabernacle itself. However, it was God who commanded the cherubim, not man. In the case of the Golden Calf, it is man and not God who commanded that its construction be carried out (Judah HaLevi).
But what about Moses, the man who took them out of Egypt? Our ancestors felt convinced that Moses had died on Mt. Sinai. In psychological terms, the Israelites experienced what is called “separation anxiety.” According to psychologist John Bowlby, separation anxiety is a key and a common ingredient in psychological distress. In clinical terms, separation anxiety occurs when the sense of care, foreboding, restlessness, or uneasiness observed in infants are removed from their primary caregiver–especially the mother. Any of us who have ever parented young children, see this quite often whenever a mother goes away even for a short time. Young children’s perception of time is radically different from adults or adolescents. From this perspective, the Israelites were like young infantile children (Maimonides makes a similar point in his Guide)
Having said that, one still feels the need to ponder: “What was Aaron thinking?” He knew it was only a matter of time before Moses would return to the camp with the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Surely Aaron knew that Moses would return, but as Rashi notes, Aaron was really stalling for time. For this reason, Aaron asks people to give up their gold to make the calf. Never did Aaron think or believe that the people would be only too willing to give up their precious gold; he expected to haggle with the folks, and buy enough time for Moses to come and save the day.
To our surprise, Aaron’s subterfuge didn’t work!
So Aaron, we are told, tried desperately to stall for time but ultimately gave in to the people’s directive: How is it possible that Aaron did not simply refuse to have any part of this scandalous behavior?
Perhaps a closer look at Aaron’s character will provide a clue and an important lesson as well. Rabbinic tradition associates Aaron as a man of peace–as epitomized in the priestly benediction. Aaron was know as “ohev shalom v’rodef shalom,” a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace.” In all probability, had Aaron been alive in the sixties, he would have been among those protesting against the war in Vietnam. “Make peace and not war” was his motto.
It seems to me that Aaron acquiesces for the sake of peace. Indeed, when Moses demanded an explanation, Aaron could only offer, “You know the people that they are set on evil” (Exod. 32:22). In other words, he panders to the rebels–all for the sake of harmony.
Maybe Aaron behaves a lot like an enabler. With respect to alcohol addiction, the alcoholic is often protected being from the negative consequences of his use. An enabler justifies the addict’s behavior by trying to smooth things out with others outside the relationship or family by trying to rationalize of and minimize the problem; Aaron figured, by ignoring the people’s problem, perhaps it might go away.
Nevertheless, we are taught by the Torah and by history as well that sometimes peace is a disaster whose effects are far more calamitous than conflict. There are things in this world worth fighting for. Some principles are worth sacrificing for. Aaron’s peace resulted in a far greater curse than fighting would have caused.
Aaron’s inability to confront strong personalities proved to be a personal shortcoming that would haunt him time and time again (cf. Num 12:1-5; 20:10). Aaron cannot confront any powerful individual; it simply wasn’t a part of his nature. There is a place for righteous anger in the political life of a people. Sometimes a leader must get angry and be forceful when the situation calls for a response.
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 teaches:
There is an appointed time for everything,
and a time for every affair under the heavens.
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to tear down, and a time to build.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them;
a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.
A time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away.
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to be silent, and a time to speak.
A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.
Of course the message applies no less to our present era.
We know that the State of Israel has learned the hard way that peace at any cost is too costly. This kind of peace, the peace of Aaron, must be shunned. Arafat used to speak about the “peace of the brave,” but what he really meant was that Israel ought to embrace the “peace of the grave.” Thanks, but no thanks. We must work for an honorable peace that will not be fatal to our brothers in distress or demoralizing to ourselves.
Sr. Winston Churchill’s advice is especially relevant for today, “The malice of the wicked was reinforced by the weakness of the virtuous.” Churchill believed the weakness of the Western nations made Nazism the menace it ultimately became.
Are we not witnessing this tragic story once more in our day?
In many respects God is giving us a golden opportunity to see if the civilized countries of the world have learned their lesson from WWII. Are we condemned to repeat the past? I pray that our President and other world leaders show the world that we will not allow another Hitler to rise again. Even now as Iran prepares to add nuclear bombs to its arsenal, the world must respond if we are to avoid another nuclear holocaust. Whose model shall we follow? Aaron’s weak and enabling response? or Moses’ forceful response? As always, the choice is in our hands.
 Had Aaron showed a bit of backbone and courage, he might have provided the kind of leadership the people needed. The simple truth is that Aaron does get a free pass because he is Moses’ brother. Sometimes it pays to have family in high places. Aaron’s redemption is a slow one, but this is not the place to discuss Aaron’s ultimate rehabilitation.