On the roof of the Aish center looking down at the Western Wall with Chevra & Davai in 2011

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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Parsha Chukas – Aaron HaKohein… Perfect Hero or Failed Leader?

Among many of the incidents in the Torah portion of Chukas we read about the death of Moses’s brother Aaron. 

There are few characters in Chumash who present us with such as dichotomy as Aaron.  On one hand, he was so great that the entire Jewish people wept and mourned him for 30 days.  On the other hand, he had a role in the greatest sin in the history of the Jewish people, the golden calf.  Several months ago, I witnessed a conversation between two friends of mine about Aaron.  One referred to him as a failed leader.  The other took the opposite extreme and denied that he had any participation in the incident in the golden calf at all.  This leads to the question, who was Aaron?

Let’s go over what happened in the Torah portion of Ki Sisa.  Chapter 32, Verses 1-5: The people saw that Moses delayed in descending the mountain and the people gathered around Aaron and said to him “Rise up, make for us g-ds who will go before us, for this Moses, the man who brought us up from Egypt – we do not know what became of him!”  Aaron said to them, “Remove the golden rings that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters and bring them to me.”  The entire people unburdened themselves of the golden rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron.  He took it from their hands and he bound it in a scarf, and made it into a molten calf; then they said, “These are your g-ds” O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.”  Aaron saw and built an alter before him; Aaron called out and said, “A festival to Hashem tomorrow!”

There are several classical answers given as to why Aaron did what he did.  Here are some:

  1. Aaron tried to delay the people by telling them to get jewelry from their wives.  He knew that Moses would be back the next day.
  2. In the exact language of the verse, he never pronounced the golden calf to be a G-d.  He stated that G-d took them out of Egypt and there will be a festival to G-d tomorrow.
  3. The Midrash tells is that Hur, the son of Miriam and Caleb stood up to the people when they first demanded that the golden calf be made and the people killed him. Aaron didn’t want the Jewish people to kill him.

All of these provide some sort of explanation, but they still seem to leave us lacking in the true understanding of Aaron.

The one thing that everyone agrees on is that Aaron never waivered in his belief in Hashem.  If that’s the case, then maybe Aaron was afraid he’d be killed and that’s why he participated in the making of the golden calf.  This also can not be the case.  When G-d tells Moses that he’s going to die, Moses begs and pleads for more time.  When Aaron finds out that he’s going to die, he doesn’t complain at all.  He clearly wasn’t afraid of death.  If he wasn’t afraid of dying, why did he do it?

In the Torah portion of Korach, a plague fell upon the Jewish people when Aaron’s leadership was questioned my a minority of men.  G-d was so outraged that the people stood by while this happened, he started killing them.  The plague was only stopped by the actions of Aaron.  Aaron was a prophet.  He understood that if this was going to happen when the Jewish people questioned him, if they would have killed him, there would have been no way that G-d would have forgiven them.  They all would have been wiped out. 

Coincidentally I heard in a lecture today, that it’s better for to sin for the sake of heaven then to do a mitzvah not for the sake of heaven. (Nazir 23b)  Even though the lecture didn’t have anything to do with Aaron, I couldn’t help to think that this was very fitting.

I offer two other proofs.  The first is that it wasn’t until after the incident with the golden calf that Aaron was given the job as high priest.  The second is found in this week’s parsha.  One would expect that the reason for Aaron’s death would have been a delayed reaction to the golden calf.  In actuality, the Torah says clearly it was because that “you (Moses) defied my word at the waters of strife.”

By acquiescing to participate in the building of the golden calf, Aaron was willing to risk his life in both this world and the next in order to save the Jewish people.  Can there be a greater act of leadership?

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