Moses said to Aaron, "What did these people do to you, that you brought a grievous sin upon it?" Aaron said, "Do not be angry… you know this people; it is in wickedness." (32:21-2)
Aaron's role in the Sin of the Golden Calf is discussed at length in the Commentaries. Firstly, why didn't he use all within his power to prevent the building of the Golden Calf in the first place? Secondly, why wasn't G-d's anger explicitly directed at Aaron - in this Parasha? This seems all the more surprising when this account is compared with Moses' recalling the story before his death. In that text it indeed says 'G-d was very angry with Aaron (intending) to destroy him and I… prayed for Aaron at that time' (Deut. 9:20).
A possible approach could be as follows. Aaron's fault was not his failure to prevent the Sin of the Golden Calf, but that he blamed others for his mistakes. This needs explanation.
The Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 10:3, quoted in Rashi to 31:5) derives from the text that Aaron attempted to prevent the actual sin by playing for time. Unlike the rest of the Israelites he understood that Moses' seemingly delayed return was based on a miscalculation. This was that the forty days and nights should have not been calculated from the day Moses ascended Mount Sinai, but from the day afterwards – that first half-day was not included (Talmud Shabbat 89a). So when Aaron said that there would be 'a festival to G-d tomorrow' (32:5) he meant exactly that – through his own delaying tactics Moses would return before any harm would be done. Aaron, however, had underestimated the Israelites zeal, as described in the next verse: 'They rose early the next day and they… brought peace offerings (to the Golden Calf) and they arose to revel' (32:6).
According to this interpretation it appears Aaron's tactics were not based on weakness, but rather on carefully steering the situation to avoid conflict and confrontation. This is indeed true to his character as described in the Talmud (Avot 1:12) 'Loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them to the Torah'. Aaron was tragically mistaken, but no more. He did not mislead his charges because of weakness.
The error was in what is in today's terms mob psychology. A mob is capable of excesses beyond the imagination of any individual members (ArtScroll Stone Edition of Shemot, p.205).
By contrast, when Moses confronted him, Aaron blamed the Israelites for worshipping the Golden Calf: 'You know this people – it is in wickedness'. The use of the singular pronoun it to describe the offending Israelites may refer to the crowd as a whole – individuals whilst pious in themselves lose their individuality in a crowd assembled for a common nefarious purpose. What Aaron should have said instead was that his educated guesswork misfired.
So according to this explanation, Aaron's association with the Golden Calf (32:35) was human error. He therefore was not counted in this Parasha with those who transgressed in the Sin of the Golden Calf itself. However on his own spiritual level he was expected to have blamed himself for having himself misled though human error. In Deut. 9, the focus was slightly different: namely on the ways that G-d had been provoked throughout the forty years in the desert, rather than a detailed account of the events that took place there. These provocations included the future High Priest blaming others for his own errors…
(Moses said) "If I have now found favor in Your Eyes… may… G-d go among us. For it is a stiff-necked people, and you shall forgive our iniquity and error and make us your heritage" (34:9).
This prayer of Moses took place after the Sin of the Golden Calf, where G-d had partially withdrawn His Presence from the Israelites. Following his intense supplication, G-d agreed to return to His People. But why did Moses refer to the Israelites as a stiff-necked people when he prayed on their behalf? How was this a recommendation? G-d used this expression against them when He considered destroying them: 'I have seen this people and behold! It is a stiff-necked people…leave me alone… and I will consume them…' (32:9-10). Rashi there explains this expression to mean that the Israelites are stubborn – they refuse to listen to rebuke and change their ways.
The Malbim brings the following answer. Being stubborn has its good side – stubborn loyalty. The Israelites had been 'stiff-necked' in continuing the idolatry of Egypt. Being stubborn, it took much longer to break habits. However once they would become fully accustomed to G-d 'going amongst them' they would transfer their stubborn loyalty exclusively to Him – even under greatest duress, as exemplified by the conduct of Chananel, Mishael, and Azariah in a much later generation. Loyalty would only be achieved by His using the stiff-necked character of the Israelites for the good – which would justify the restoring of His Presence to them.
This explanation by the Malbim gives an additional perspective to the opening passage in the Book of Isaiah, where Isaiah warned the people of Judea of the disasters that would befall them if they did not mend their ways. There, G-d communicated to Isaiah:
'I have reared and brought up children (the Israelites), and they have rebelled against Me.
The ox knows his owner; and the ass, the food-stall of his master, (but) Israel does not know (G-d), my people do not consider…
Ah! Sinful nation! … They have forsaken G-d! They have provoked the Holy One of Israel to anger!' (Isaiah 1:2-4).
Here, Isaiah's rebuke is twofold. Not only did the Jews forsake G-d, Whom they knew well. But they also went below the level of domesticated animals, in that they did not show even stubborn loyalty to their master – in this case, their Creator…
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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