Posted on March 10, 2023 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck
Our Rabbis tell us that we should strive to be like Aaron, “loving peace and pursuing peace, loving all people and bringing them near to the Torah.” (Pirkei Avot 1:12)
This is the way our tradition remembers Aaron, as a man of peace, a lover of humanity. But if we look at this week’s Torah reading, Ki Tisa, we might get a very different impression, for it was Aaron who fashioned the Golden Calf. Aaron, it seems, was responsible for the worst act of idolatry in Jewish history.
And yet, he was never indicted for this failure. On the contrary, our rabbis defended Aaron, suggesting that he did everything he could to save his people from transgressing.
A stunning midrash suggests that before approaching Aaron, the people went to Hur, the nephew of Moses and Aaron, and when he refused to make them “a god that they could see,” they killed him. (B’midbar Rabbah 15:21; Tanchuma, T’tzaveh 10:6) From this Aaron concluded that they would surely do the same to him, leaving no one to deter them. Wisely and gently, he tried to lead them back to God.
First, he sought to delay by having the men tell their wives and daughters to contribute their gold jewelry. When that failed, he declared: “Tomorrow will be a festival to God.” Not a festival to the Golden Calf, and not “today,” but “tomorrow.” (Tanchuma, Ki Tisa 19:5)
In all these ways our tradition sees Aaron as a compassionate and loving leader of his people. A man of peace. A pastor.
Moses, on the other hand, upon hearing that the people had gone astray, smashed the Tablets of the Covenant, ground the Golden Calf into a powder, mixed it with water, and made the people drink it. Then he summoned the Levites, who massacred 3,000 Israelites.
Aaron the Priest and Moses the Prophet are two different types of people who represent two different models of leadership. They see the world through different lenses.
In his seminal essay “Kohein V’navi,” “Priest and Prophet,” Ahad HaAm describes prophets as extreme and unrelenting ideologues. They are zealots possessed by God’s truth, raging crusaders for a vision of justice and righteousness. Despised by their people (who were deaf to their pleas), most prophets were marginal and miserable people. As Jeremiah lamented in describing his lot, “Woe is me, my mother, that you ever bore me — a man of conflict and strife with all the land!” (Jeremiah 15:10)
Not so the Priests, of whom Aaron is the ideal. Ahad HaAm describes the Priest as a person of moderation and consideration — a man of the people. He shares the faith of the Prophet, but puts his people first, ahead of ideology. He is a realist, a pragmatist, who seeks what is possible.
It is interesting and important to note that the Torah doesn’t call upon the Children of Israel to be prophets. It calls us to be “a kingdom of priests” — a people that will strive to be like Aaron, seekers of peace and lovers of humanity.
We are living at a time of extreme contentiousness and strife, both here in America and in Israel. Both nations are increasingly in the grip of leaders who are possessed by an uncompromising prophetic zeal for their ideologies, which threaten the lives and wellbeing of their citizens.
What can we do about this dangerous and lamentable situation? We can refrain from emulating the ways of the prophets. We can eschew the temptation to turn our ideologies into idols to be worshipped. We can refuse to despise or demonize our fellow citizens with whom we disagree, and we can insist that our leaders engage in civil dialogue that seeks compromise on the pressing issues of our day.
We can and must choose to be “of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving all people and seeking to bring them near to the Torah” that teaches us to love one another. Above all, to love one another.
Rabbi Arnie Gluck