I am thoroughly annoyed with the rabbinic interpretation of the Bible. There seems to be total whitewashing of the stories, just to make the heroes look sinless. Can’t there be a human side to the story too?
The story of the Golden Calf is my latest example. The people saw that Moses had not returned; they gathered before Aaron and they demanded that he “make for us gods that will go before us.” Next sentence, Aaron tells them to remove their gold rings and bring them to him. Aaron took their gold belongings and fashioned them into a molten calf, and the people said: “These are your gods, O Israel, who have brought you up from the land of Egypt!” Final sentence of this scene is, “Aaron built an altar and called out saying, ‘A festival for G‑d tomorrow.’”
But the rabbis say “no.” That’s not what happened—he was engaged in a stall for timeThe story is clear-cut and simple. Out of fear of the mob, or maybe a temporary loss of faith himself, Aaron showed no resistance to the people’s request. He didn’t seek to persuade them of the error of their ways.
But the rabbis say “no.” That's not what happened—he was engaged in a stall for time so that Moses would return from the mountain to prove that G‑d and Moses were still there for the House of Israel.
Why do the rabbis, time and again, resist the notion that our Biblical heroes, such as Aaron, are human beings who have human flaws? And at the cost of defying the plain meaning of the text?
You ask from the literal words of the verse, so I will begin with an answer from the literal text—which, to be honest, bothers me more than the rabbinic explanation.
If indeed Aaron went through a weak moment, possibly even in his own faith, then: a) Moses also seems to have turned a blind eye, in one of the greatest shows of nepotism attributed to a Biblical hero; b) not only did Aaron lack in strong leadership, but he was actually dishonest, with no sense of responsibility.
Let me explain:
Moses descends the mountain, shatters the tablets, grinds up the calf, and addresses Aaron. Moses asks him (Exodus 32:21), “What did this people do to you that you brought a grave sin upon them?”
Moses seems to skip an important question. “How did you make an idol, when you just heard at Sinai that this is forbidden?”
Instead he says, “What did they do to you that you did this to them?”—implying that Aaron was forced into this. Why is he so sure that Aaron didn’t make the calf out of a lack of faith?
The worst part is Aaron’s answer in the next verse. “Let not my lord be angry! You know the people, that they are disposed toward evil.” Their fault, huh? What ever happened to taking responsibility for your actions? Who asked them for the gold and silver? Who threw it into the fire?
Then Moses punishes the people involved. Some are killed by the sword. Some die after being forced to drink the water of the ground-up Golden Calf (32:20). Many more die in a plague which G‑d sends.
And Aaron? What’s his punishment? He is appointed High Priest!And Aaron? What’s his punishment? He is appointed High Priest! The people are smitten by a plague “because they had made the calf that Aaron had made” (32:35), yet the mastermind of this outrage is rewarded with priesthood for himself and all his children.
This book has to make some sense, and I don’t think that it's trying to teach a lesson in shirking responsibility and getting away with it through nepotism. If that were the case, then these two brothers serve as the worst example of leadership, and should go down in history as crooked and evil. “The Five Books of the Nepotistic” should not be studied by billions of people, and definitely not read with a blessing before and after.
And one last question:
The people mob Aaron and ask for a new god. They are obviously in a frenzy. Their “god” appears. (According to the Midrash, they also witnessed a phenomenal supernatural show: a calf of gold emerging on its own four feet from a fire.) And Aaron announces, “The party will be tomorrow!” What sort of anti-climax is that? Imagine if on the evening of November 4th, the night that President Obama was elected, the bars would have closed and hung signs: “You just witnessed one of the greatest moments in American history, but we think you should get some sleep. The party will be tomorrow!”
Could it be that there was some sort of intentional “buying time” going on here? Can we, the progressive and tolerant, consider that perhaps a great plan just didn’t work out as Aaron planned? Could it be that G‑d already clued Moses in on who actually was responsible, when he told him (32:7–8), “Go, descend, for your people that you have brought up from the land of Egypt have acted corruptly . . . they have made themselves a molten calf!”
In Exodus 28:1, G‑d instructs Moses: “Bring near to yourself your brother Aaron . . . from among the children of Israel to serve Me.” Moses isn’t told just to appoint Aaron, he is told to “bring Aaron near.” The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 37:2) explains that Moses felt that Aaron was responsible to some degree for the making of the Golden Calf, to which G‑d responded with the following parable.
A mischievous prince decided one day to destroy the walls of his father’s palace. His teacher saw, and said, “Allow me to help destroy the wall, as I am more capable than you.” When the king saw this, he realized that the teacher’s intent was to delay the prince. “If there is anyone capable of maintaining my palace,” the king proclaimed, “it is you—the wise teacher.”
Thus, G‑d told Moses: Despite your concerns, “bring him near”; trust me that Aaron, a person tactfully dedicated to the best of his people, is the finest man for the job.
The sixth of the Thirteen Principles of Faith penned by Maimonides is the belief that “G‑d communicates to mankind through prophecy.”
The criteria to be worthy of prophecy, as explained by Maimonides: one must be wise, of a clear and lucid mind, of impeccable character, utterly in control of one’s passions and desires, and of a calm and joyous constitution. In addition, the individual must shun materialism and the frivolities of life, devoting him- or herself entirely to knowing and serving G‑d.
Can we, the progressive and tolerant, consider that perhaps a great plan just didn’t work out as Aaron planned?It makes sense that only one who is entirely devoted to G‑d, with no trace of materialistic passion or any sense of ego, can be a positive conduit for Divine communication.
Yet, Judaism believes that prophecy is a real thing. In other words, Judaism believes that it is possible for a human being to reach such a great spiritual level. This is why Jews of all the generations have what is called emunat tzaddikim, “trust in the righteous”—the belief that there are righteous people who are divinely inspired, whose every limb at every moment is a conduit of the Divine will.
Aaron was the only person in his day (other than Moses) permitted by G‑d to enter the Holy of Holies. Through him G‑d directly communicated several sections of the Torah. He’s one of the 48 prophets recorded in the Bible.