Ki Tisa: Unfolding tragedy
The sin of the Golden Calf was without question one of the darkest moments in the history of the Jewish people.
Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg, ט"ז באדר תשע"ו, 2/25/2016

Tragedy unfolds in this week’s Torah portion with an episode so terrible and traumatic in the history of the Jewish people that we still feel the effects of it today. There are many difficult questions raised when studying the story, in particular how to understand Aaron’s involvement in the sin of the Golden Calf. After all, its construction almost led to the annihilation of the Jewish people. 

A complete comprehension of Aaron’s mindset during this story is obviously impossible, but a rarely cited Rabbinical law, and a subsequent debate between the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud, offers a small insight into his involvement and its aftermath.

There is a Rabbinical command that requires the public reading of the Torah to be translated into Aramaic (the Tirgum) as it is being recited. However, there are certain sections of Torah that are not to be translated during their reading in Hebrew. One of these is the section known as the “Egel Sheini”, or the second Golden Calf. Of course, one should immediately ask: wasn’t there only one episode of the sin of the Golden Calf? Yes, there was. The Talmud, though, brackets off Aaron’s narration of the episode to Moshe, and considers it the second edition, so to speak, of the Golden Calf.

After God relates to Moshe the tragic sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe descends the mountain, breaks the tablets and destroys the idol. Thus begins the second Golden Calf (32:21):

Moses said to Aaron: "What did this people do to you that you brought [such] a grave sin upon them?"”

Aaron responds to Moshe (ibid 22-24):

Aaron replied: "Let not my lord's anger grow hot! You know the people, that they are disposed toward evil. They said to me, 'Make us gods who will go before us, because this man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt we do not know what has become of him.' I said to them, 'Who has gold?' So they took it [the gold] off and gave it to me; I threw it into the fire and out came this calf."”

The sin of the Golden Calf was without question one of the darkest moments in the history of the Jewish people. As mentioned above, the “original” incident is both read and translated. How, then, is this re-telling somehow worse than the original, reflected in the prohibition in its translation?

The Babylonian Talmud offers an explanation (Megillah 25b):

The second account of the Calf is read but not translated. What is the second account of the Calf? — From ‘And Moses said’ up to ‘and Moses saw’.It has been taught: A man should always be careful in wording his answers, because on the ground of the answer which Aaron made to Moses the unbelievers were able to deny [God], as it says, And I cast it into the fire and this calf came forth.

The implication from the Talmud is that Aaron’s description of the calf coming forth from the fire gives ammunition to idolaters, as it suggests a level of reality to this calf, a heretical assumption. If this is the case, how could Aaron be so lax in his description?

Tosfot cites the Jerusalem Talmud in offering an alternate explanation. Rather than being critical of Aaron’s unintended implication, the avoidance of translating the second account of the Golden Calf was due to the honor of Aaron. Referring to the verses cited above, Moshe’s reaction to Aaron’s recounting of the story is telling (ibid 25):

And Moses saw the people, that they were exposed, for Aaron had exposed them to be disgraced before their adversaries.

The idea of the Jewish people being exposed, according to many commentaries, was that their relationship to God has been severely compromised.

The inference from this verse is that Aaron was responsible for the demise of the Jewish people. The Talmud explains that when contrasting one group to another group or one individual to another individual, the insinuation of disgrace is muted. When contrasting an individual to a group, the disgrace is more poignant and powerful. In this instance, Aaron is being singled out from the group, as if he was the ringleader of the idolatrous enterprise. Aaron should never be thought of in such a context, so the entire episode is not translated. If such a distortion could emerge, how do we understand Moshe’s critique of Aaron?

On a technical level, the debate between the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud centers on whether the last verse cited above is part of the second account of the Golden Calf. However, on a conceptual plane, the issue is quite simple: what is the desired objective of avoiding the translation of this episode? Was it due to the fodder thrown to the idolaters, hinting at a reality to the calf? Or was it due to sparing Aaron the discredit that could be derived from Moshe’s critique?

Prior to analyzing the mistake of Aaron, it is critical to acknowledge a sensitivity required when attempting to comprehend the actions of these great individuals. Without question, Aaron was one of the greatest humans to walk the earth, a personification of righteousness, perfection, and the true love of knowledge of God. It is difficult to imagine the level he occupied. At the same time, he was a human being, and the concept of a human divorced from sin is not a Jewish idea. The Torah presents the mistakes and errors of these great people without any type of censorship. The Sages discuss the problems presented by these people in a manner reflecting true intellectual honesty. We must keep this balance in mind as we enter into this analysis.

Clearly, there was a problem with Aaron’s involvement in the plan of the Golden Calf, and the focus here will be on one facet of his error. In the unfolding of this tragic episode it states that this idol was crafted with human hands (see verse 4). Yet Aaron chooses to express that the idol has “magically” exited the fire, fully formed. Why would he choose this language? Was he being irresponsible?

Upon witnessing the Jewish people’s consideration of Moshe’s absence, he immediately understood there was a serious problem afoot. He appreciated that there was an underlying attachment to Moshe that was problematic, and underneath this lay a dormant idolatrous need. However, it is possible he failed to truly understand the depth of this problem, the strong primitive desire to worship through the physical. He went along with the plan, stalling for time, but underestimating how powerful the emotion truly was.

Upon telling the story over to Moshe, he immediately describes the Jewish people as being evil. It was after the incident ended that, upon reflection, Aaron understood how the present generation were in the grasp of idolatry. He describes the calf as exiting the fire, fully formed. In this description, Aaron was explaining to Moshe just how heinous their sin was. The Jewish people at that time ascribed reality to this inanimate object, this false representation of God. In their eyes, it was real. This was the clearest way to convey the message to Moshe.

Yet while Aaron recognized the flaw that the current generation of Jews manifested, he failed to understand that it was one that was not to be eradicated at that moment. This flaw is part and parcel of man, a constant struggle he would face throughout his life. Whereas today we may not typically witness Jews paying homage to an idol, the idolatrous emotion is just as powerful today as it was then, and unfortunately is constantly present among the Jewish people, albeit sometimes subtly. While his choice of words may have reflected the best momentary method of expressing what the Jews were thinking, these same words reflected his inability to understand just how deep this problem runs through the psyche of man. The fuel to the idolatrous fire emergent from his words was the error here, the failure to understand how powerful and, at times, all-consuming this emotion can be. The Babylonian Talmud, then, focuses on this aspect of Aaron and his involvement.

Moshe responds to Aaron with a damning indictment of the Jewish people. Yet he singles out Aaron, as if he was the “ringleader” of this plan. It is absurd to even consider that Aaron somehow identified with any of the idolatrous emotions of the Jewish people, then or now. What was Moshe then criticizing him? As we mentioned before, Aaron was the epitome of righteousness. Moshe was not in any way attacking Aaron on an individual level. Aaron was also a leader of the Jewish people, encumbered with a unique responsibility to direct the nation on the path of perfection.

Moshe was isolating this part of Aaron’s identity, and how he failed to lead properly. Aaron’s involvement in the entire incident, and Moshe’s subsequent critique, was in fact a condemnation of his leadership during this period of time. Aaron’s flaw was expressed through the prism of his leadership, rather than a flaw in who he was as a person. Thus, Moshe’s words were accurate. Yet, with this harsh criticism comes the potential distortion, where Aaron was perceived as the leader of the idolatrous plan, rather than a leader who failed to understand the depth of a problem within his people. Therefore, according to the Jerusalem Talmud, we do not translate this section of the Torah.

Aaron was an essential part of the plan of the Golden Calf – that is not up for debate. Aaron was one of the greatest people to ever live – this is also not debatable. Understanding the nature of Aaron’s flaw during this tumultuous event provides us with an important degree of intellectual acuity, expressing how even someone on Aaron’s level could miss the powerful force of idolatry and unwittingly help guide his people on the wrong path.
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