Rabbi Charles P. Sherman
Bar Mitzvah Lance Lehman
Shabbat Ki Tisa
When the frightened and faith-challenged Israelites demand an idol to worship, how could Aaron the High Priest have gone along with them?
Upon examination, we may discover a little bit of Aaron in ourselves.
A Near-Fatal Flaw in a Very Good Man
As we listened to Lance chant and then translate from this week’s Torah portion, we recognize that Aaron is a key character in the Jewish story. Aharon Ha-Kohen – Aaron the High Priest – had many good qualities. He was able to be second in command to his brother Moses, even though Moses was three years younger than he was. This is a rare quality. Most of us find it a challenge to play second fiddle, especially to a younger brother, but Aaron did that and nowhere in our Torah does Aaron even complain or express envy over being number two. For that he deserves to be admired.
Aaron had the ability to suffer enormous tragedy and recover. On the day of his greatest glory, the day when he was officially installed as High Priest, he lost two of his children. On that day, which was supposed to be one of simcha, his glory turned to ashes. Yet our Torah records vayidom Aharon – Aaron kept silent. He grit his teeth and if he wept, he did so in private. Then, after some time, he came back to the altar and served God again. Could any of us, God forbid, endure such tragic loss and recover? For this alone Aaron deserves much admiration.
According to the Midrash, Aaron had one more exemplary quality. As our sages understood him, Aaron was an ohev shalom v’rodef shalom – a person who loved peace and who worked hard at making peace. The sages tell a number of stories about how much Aaron loved and effected peace.
They say that if two people were angry and alienated from each other, Aaron would say to one of them “the other one feels terrible that you and he are on the outs, but he does not know how to make-up.” And then he would go to the other one and say the same thing. In this way he would soften the hearts of both of them and make it easier for them to reconcile.
The sages say that if someone was behaving badly, Aaron would make a point of associating with this person until the individual would say to himself “if Aaron, the High Priest, is my friend, how can I do bad things?” And the person would repent and behave better.
So there is no wonder that the people loved Aaron. Therefore they grieved and mourned for Aaron when he died even more than they did for Moses. Of Moses it is written that the Israelites mourned for seven days; of Aaron it is written they mourned for him 30 days. Of Moses it is written that the people mourned for him. Of Aaron it is written that all the people mourned for him.
And yet . . . look at what Aaron does in this week’s sedra. Aaron commits a sin so awful that we are simply staggered when we hear it. Aaron, the older brother of Moses, Aaron the High Priest, the person in charge of the worship of God, Aaron gives in to the demands of the people and makes a Golden Calf.
Let’s understand the gravity of this sin. When God sees what the people have done, God says to Moses – as Lance read: “Now let Me be that My anger may blaze forth against them that I may destroy them . . .” (Ex. 32:10) God is furious with the people, and Moses is furious with his brother.
So how we are to comprehend the behavior of Aaron in this incident? What the ordinary people did, at least to some extent, we can understand. Moses had promised to come back at a certain on time and he didn’t, so the people panicked. They were afraid that Moses had abandoned them, so they ganged up on Aaron and said “Moses, our leader is missing. Make for us a god who will go before us.”
We can understand what the people did; they were frightened and immature, and no one should be judged too harshly for what they do when they are terrified.
But Aaron! How could he have gone along with them? How could he have not stood up to them? How could he not have said “NO” to them? The people make their demand and immediately – in the very next sentence – without hesitation, without any effort to persuade them to be patient or to reconsider, Aaron agrees. He goes along with the people, and simply asks them to collect their wives’ jewelry so that he can make for them a Golden Calf.
Aaron did that. Aaron, who had accompanied Moses and spoke for him in the court of Pharaoh. Aaron, who had stood at the right-hand of Moses all through the long struggle to free the people from Egyptian slavery. Aaron became an idol-maker – how can that be?
As Moses says when he comes down the mountain: “What did this people do to you that you have brought such a great sin upon them?” (32:21) How could you have done such an abominable thing?
Interestingly, the sages of the Midrash try their best to defend Aaron. One says Aaron was only stalling, that he figured it would take some time for the people to gather enough materials for a calf and, by the time they did, Moses would have returned and the crisis would be over. That is why he asked them to bring the jewelry which belonged to their wives. Aaron figured the women would be reluctant to give up their jewelry. They would hesitate, they would argue, they would fight and, by the time they gave in, Moses would have arrived. Perhaps.
Another sage says Aaron saw what had happened to his nephew – Hur – who tried to resist. Hur tried to stand up to the mob, but they trampled over him and killed him. So Aaron reasoned – if I try to do what Hur did, they will kill me just as they killed him, and why should they have the blood of two innocent people on their hands? So this was the reason why Aaron went along. He did so because of what the people had done to Hur. Perhaps.
No one can be sure why Aaron did not just say “NO” when the people ganged up on him and insisted that he build for them an idol. The fact that the sages give more than one possible explanation is proof that no one knows for certain why Aaron did what he did.
So let me offer another possible explanation for Aaron’s behavior. For whatever it is worth, my guess is that the reason Aaron did this awful thing was because he was the kind of person who liked to be liked – and you don’t get to be liked by saying “NO.”
Let me say again, no one knows for sure. But if that is the explanation for what Aaron did, then, my dear friends, Aaron is not the only one we know who does what he does – not because it is right, but because he wants to be liked.
Look at today’s politicians and see how they make their decisions. When an unpopular issue comes up – a bill which may be right, a budget cut which may be necessary, but which will offend many people – what do many politicians do? They have managers who convene what they call “focus groups” on whom they try out their positions. If the focus group reacts favorably, then the politician expounds this position. But if the focus group reacts negatively, then the politician often manages to be absent from Congress on the day the vote is taken – or simply votes “no.”
If it’s a bill to raise taxes – which may be necessary, but which is seldom popular – elected officials read the public opinion polls, find out what the people in their district are thinking, and that is what they think. They say what the polls tell them the people want them to say. Instead of being leaders, they are finger-in-the-wind followers, echoing the opinions of the people instead of trying to form them.
Politicians have a deep and basic need to be liked. If they are not liked – especially by the people who make major campaign contributions – they will not be office holders for very long. So many, driven by the need to be liked, vote for what is popular and not necessarily for what is right or necessary.
It’s easy for us to point fingers at politicians, to criticize them for doing what is popular instead of what is needed. But the truth is that you and I often do the same thing. If you are a member of a group and everyone wants to do something that you – in your innermost heart – know is wrong, do you find it easy to speak-up and object, to say NO? Or do you go along with the group and keep your objections to yourself?
Many, if not most of us, are reluctant to stand out and to seem different from everyone else, so we often go along with things which we know in our heart of hearts we should not. We keep quiet instead of speaking up because, like Aaron, we like to be liked. True? Don’t you recognize a little bit of yourself in Aaron? I confess that I do.
And so, if we had to evaluate Aaron – and nothing gives us the right to do so, by the way – we would be much better off judging ourselves rather than judging Aaron or other people. But if we were to evaluate Aaron, what would we say?
I believe we could say that he was a very good man. That he had the rare ability to be second in command without envy. That he had the even rarer ability to endure tragedy and recover. That he had a most admirable love of peace and the willingness to do whatever he could in order to make peace. But he had one near-fatal flaw – the need to be liked almost ruined Aaron. The need to be liked caused him not only to sin, but to cooperate in one of the great sins in all of history.
No one is perfect; everyone has at least one flaw. I have a lot more than one. In my opinion, this was the flaw which Aaron had – the flaw that very nearly brought about the destruction of the entire Jewish People.
So let us honor Aharon Ha-Kohen today. Let us acknowledge his virtues, for they were real and significant. But let us also recognize his flaw, the flaw that led to the sin of the Golden Calf, and let us resolve to struggle to overcome this flaw when it appears within ourselves. K’ayn y’hi ratzon, with God’s help, may we make it so. Amen
I’m grateful to Rabbi Jack Riemer from whom I learned this lesson.