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Was Aaron Responsible for the Golden Calf?

Was Aaron Responsible for the Golden Calf?

Can’t Biblical heroes make mistakes too?



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!”1

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!”2

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.

Enough said.

Similarly, Aaron’s instruction to “remove the gold rings that are in the ears of your wives and children” (32:2) also demonstrates that he had other intents. Why didn’t Aaron ask the Israelites to contribute from their own gold—of which they had plenty, as evidenced by the fundraiser for the Tabernacle that occurred shortly afterwards? But Aaron apparently assumed that the women and children wouldn’t be so quick to part with their jewelry.
Furthermore, the wording of the announcement—“These are your gods, O Israel . . .” (32:8)—is a clear indication that it was not even the children of Israel speaking, but rather the erev rav, the multitudes of Egyptians who joined our ancestors when they left Egypt (see Exodus 12:38).
Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson is a writer who lives with his family in Brooklyn, N.Y.
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Anonymous MA May 23, 2017

Why didn't Aaron own any responsibility in his interaction with Moses? Or even cry out to G-d about the agonizing decision to go along with the people because he, a human being, could not think of any other possibility? I can appreciate his no-win situation, but see his way of handling it afterwards as one of a human being who has faults and sometimes lacks the courage to own responsibility--and Hashem can understand the human-ness of Hashem's leaders and may choose to show compassion and mercy to Aaron. But why in this case? This may be a different thread, but I don't understand the severity of the treatment of Aaron's sons and if a connection has been made between those two incidents. Reply

Eliezer Zalmanov for November 23, 2016

To Elias Aaron was responsible to some extent, but ultimately he did everything he could to prevent this from going through. The fact that it happened anyway despite his efforts, is not his fault. Reply

Elias Houston November 22, 2016

I didn't get it. On one hand the answer now is that Aaron was fully responsible and later again he wasn't responsible at all but even more worthy of G-d.
But the question continues as painful as ever, could all (all) the rabbinical explanations be wrong? And worse, could there be here a needed explanation to what is literally as obvious as the universe built in 6 days? Reply

Jackie Bourg Montreal March 27, 2016

So Aaron is guilty ....and he gets rewarded? The answer given is not satisfactory for me.
I've been reading Torah for 39 years and always wondered:
Why does Aaron get away with it?
Is it because "he was chosen from his mother's womb"?
Did the animal sacrifices cover for his sin?

Considering this to be an old article, it remains new every morning. Reply

Anonymous Memphis November 22, 2014

In spite of our flaws, not because of their absence I suggest that the original question focuses on an important point: the Holy One used humans to work His purposes and reveal His nature, not because they were already flawless, but in spite of their flaws. Submission to His will rescued them from their failings. Jacob swindled (his brother), Moses waffled (at the bush), Aaron caved (and made a calf), David gave in to lust which led to murder (with Bathsheba), and on and on...

But each of them continued to re-turn to faith and obedience. As should we. Reply

Jey houston, texas UAS November 16, 2013

Moses prayed for Aaron. Deu 9:20 And the LORD was very angry with Aaron to have destroyed him: and I prayed for Aaron also the same time.

I think this is the main reason he was forgiven. And he also drank the water within had golden power. But did he continue to sin the rest of his life? Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma June 25, 2013

The golden calf and then, the red heifer, for HEI Idol is an interesting word. People have their idols today. A show: American Idol. It feels like, idolatry can go over the top, when one person is idolized, so constantly. Maybe it becomes a substitute or a way to express love, that does exist for that one person. Even in Judaism we see it in the celebration of famous, and sensitive rabbis. Thosuands gathering to celebrate a life, of learning, sharing and love. So it's a difficult question, this question of the Golden Calf. Kaf so similar aurally, is a Hebrew letter. Examine it for its meaning, on line, the mystic significance, and see how this relates. Since everything is truly connected, and this story, has zillions of cross connects including "cross' as in angry, then I feel, there's another story running, and Moses had to have known it. He was so visibly led. Perhaps, Aaron too. A story, within, a story.

So here we are, looking at sacred cows, and wondering. We can turn a pot on the wheel and shape it. Endless metaphor! Reply

Yisroel Cotlar Cary, NC March 1, 2013

Re: The Torah doesn't hide the faults of our greatest leaders. And Kings, Priests, and other leaders, throughout the Tanach, are told when their behavior is not proper. Reply

Ted CA February 28, 2013

The cast system We the Jews have a cast system where the high priests are above the law, and this passage is one example of that. Reply

John Alexander Green Kenya January 13, 2013

Aaron and the molten calf I have really enjoyed reading through this discussion. But I personally have been challenged by Moshe's words to Aaron 'What have these people done to you, that you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?'
These words really woke ME up to enquire about MY example in being a role model, or in promoting good leadership in front of those with whom I live. It disturbed me because I realised just how easy it can be to lead or encourage others into a wrong way.
Each one of us HAS an intrinsic responsability to be Watchmen within our society. We ARE expected to BE our brother's Keeper. And when we fail and others are caught in their sin BECAUSE we did not stand up / speak out in protest and warning against their sin, then THEIR blood will be upon our head.
Not a pleasant condemnation.
We are all flesh and blood, dust, and G-d knows this. Not even a man at his best can successfully live a good life. BUT G-d is greater than our sin. He is Merciful. Reply

Deborah Webb Springfield, Ma USA April 10, 2012

Why is the letter o missing from the word GOD in this article? Reply

Anonymous Indonesia April 23, 2017
in response to Deborah Webb:

Because it's a Jewish website, Ma'am. Reply

Anonymous USA February 23, 2011

Was Aaron responsible? Hashem awarded Aaron with Priesthood because he was the most qualified and had a History of being a peace maker. As punishment for his involvement Aaron lost his two sons who were smited by God.

I believe Aaron was tricked into the true intent of sorcerors who made the Golden calf and were Egyptian! So were the Israelites. Remember for all it was the first time they heard Torah or saw the Great and wonderous signs God gave them during their stay in Camps before they entered the Holy Land and also the Exodus from Egypt. Aaron being the Peace Maker that he was, set up an alter to counteract what the sorcerors were doing with the Golden Calf.

So in the end, those guilty paid and those who were not entered the Holy Land. Moshe did not go into the land of Milk and Honey because God took Moshe to Himself. Reply

Frantz Reading, PA February 17, 2011

Was Aaron responsible for the Golden Calf? Your answer to: "Was Aaron responsible for the Golden Calf?" is very interesting. It shows how even the righteous could felt but find forgiveness. It seems the people who worshiped the idol did not repent, while others did not worship like them, including Aaron. Repentance brings forgiveness. G-d is full of mercy and love.
"Can’t Biblical heroes make mistakes too?" I am sure everyone agrees that yes, it is possible and the Biblical text is full of stories where "heroes" did many "mistakes" but again, they repented and experienced grace, love, compassion and transformation. Teshuvah is central to the Jewish faith and to every religion with roots in Judaism, including Islam, Christianity, Bah'ai etc It is one of the greatest contributions Judaism has made to humanity. Reply

Leah Pittsburgh, PA February 17, 2011

What a lesson on not judging another fellow being! I love your answer. I personally have been accused wrongly by people who were so sure that they can judge my actions superficially instead of looking at my character history. I too have been guilty of doing the same. To me, Torah demonstrates to us real life. Things are not what necessarily meets the eyes on the surface. Many a times, we are tempted to come too fast to our own conclusions without digging deeper. Reply

Igerne Paris, France February 17, 2011

Thank you Rabbi I really like the wit of your answer! Reply

Ricky R. Rouser Decatur, USA February 16, 2011

White washing of the stories IN order to be the Holy G-d there must be judgement for sin, and the store is not white washed at all. If you fast forward to Numbers 20:24-29 you will see Aaron judgement for his sin, and in Exodus 31:1-10 you will see that G-d had declared the garments holly , therefore Aaron judgement was delayed but, not forgotten, because Hollieness demands judgement. G-d"s wisdom was to establish the preisthood so that we all could benifit from the cleaning of not only the heroes , but all the people of the world. Abramham seed cannot be counted. Then God strip the holly garment from Aaron and he droped died.
All the tabernacle parts where holly because they are the same as the ones in heaven. G-d gave Moses a blueprint of what was in heaven until He established His Kingdom in ISRAEL , that why the measurement had to be just right with the ark,mercyseat,furniture, garments,candlestick,tables of testimony.
So they r heroes in that they help but flesh and blood shall"n enter heaven Reply

Yehoshua Solomon Baltimore, MD March 10, 2010

'The Golden Calf Was the Work of the Erev Rav' The erev rav certainly did not bring it. They joined the Jews because of the miracles they saw and the awe and love of G-d those miracles produced in them. They only stumbled later.
There were many Jewish slaves in Egypt, and it makes sense that they would perform many tasks for the Egyptians. Some of them might have been goldsmiths.
Gold is malleable. Additionally, the gold they had had already been refined. Not much fire would've been needed (unlike glass or iron).
In the Egyptian myths, I recall a cow deity as being among the others - osiris, horus, etc. It might not have been a popular focus of worship, but the cow is still in their mythology. The reason they made a calf is explained in the hidden teachings of the Torah.
Yes they were impatient. They were totally dependent on Moshe as Hashem's representative, and the miracles G-d did for them through him. Otherwise, they could not be sure of survival. Also, the yetzer hara (evil inclination) was sent to test them. Reply

Ben NY, NY, USA March 9, 2010

The Golden Calf Was the Work of the Erev Rav I'd like to add to the comment I posted, THE GOLDEN CALF WAS THE WORK OF THE EREV RAV (the "mixed multitude.")

I think that the Golden Calf was NOT made in the desert while Moshe was on Mt. Sinai. I think the Erev Rav BROUGHT it with them when they left.

1. Among the people, was there a goldsmith with the skill necessary to make a gold statue? Bezalel wasn't involved, or he would've been barred from working on the Mishkan (Tabernacle).

2. Where would they get the fuel to forge the gold?

3. Why a golden calf, not a golden man? Research corrects me; calfs were not worshipped by Egyptians, but by the Minoans, Etruscans, Phoenicians, the Roman Mithras, and other Meditteraneans. Egyptians could've captured foreigners who worshipped the calf diety. Egypt's slaves included prisoners of war, and they may have brought the idol with them.

4. Were Bnei Yisrael that IMPATIENT? Moshe was one day late and they start worshipping an idol? It doesn't make sense. Reply

Mr. Yehoshua Solomon March 9, 2010

Reponse to Antwan, AZ Antwan (if you are responding to my comment): Could you please be more specific about Billam, what precisely is your question.

Additionally: This is a Chabad website. An excellent response to Baruch is in the first chapter of Tanya. Some people are complete Tzaddikim, whose evil inclinations are totally converted into a good inclination. All their energies are in line to serve G-d. This was no doubt the state of Adam before he sinned. The active evil inclination was outside of him, not within him. Yet he sinned. So: the sin of a righteous person is not the sin of the average person, half-awake and half-conscious to his mission as Jew. So then the question becomes: what does the Torah mean to tell us by informing us of the sins of such great righteous people, if their lives seem dissimilar to ours. Reply

Norman Bar London, U.K. March 2, 2010

Was Aaron responsible for the Golden Calf? In Sedrah Eikev (Devarim chapter 9 verse 20) we learn from Moses when reminding the Israelites of the incident many years later that “In addition the LORD was very angry with Aaron, to have destroyed him; and I prayed for Aaron also the same time”. Aaron clearly had faults, recognised by G-d and Moses, and was likely to have been punished for his wrongdoing, but for Moses' intervention (as he intervened for the rest of the Israelites too). I prefer to think that a maturer view of our great ancestors (even Moses) is to admit this and recognise that despite this they were nonetheless great men and women. But human, not gods, not perfect, not infallible. Reply

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