Rabbi Daniel Roth
Former Shaliach in Manhattan


Imagine, a leader, who came to power on an ideological platform that brought about his nations independence, suddenly making an abrupt departure from this ideology, in what may be seen as an attempt to gain popularity in the polls, only to have those new policies nearly cause the total and ultimate destruction of the young nation. How would such a sudden shift in policy, be interpreted by the daily press, by the subsequent state inquiry, and by the many historians in the generations to come?

No, we are not talking about any former Prime Minister of Israel, or any current one, to be sure, but rather of Aaron HaCohen, brother of Moshe Rabenu, second in command of the young Israelite nation. Aaron, came to power, after he and his brother successfully executed the “Exodus Plan”, and while Moshe was up on the mountain, he suddenly found himself as the sole leader of an unhappy people. As a result he masterminded a new plan called the “Golden Calf” (Exod. 32:5) that initially proved to be very popular amongst the people (32:6), yet ultimately was the near cause of the total annihilation of the nation (32:10). The final result was that, at least three thousand Israelites died (Exodus. 32:28, 35), and Aaron was rebuked by G-d, but later forgiven (Deut.9:20), and allowed to stay in power without a trace of the incident left over to tarnish his legacy (Deut. 33:8). So what are we, the students of this difficult story, supposed to learn from it?

The commentaries are split over how to interpret Aaron’s behavior. There were those who portrayed him as a coward, who compromised all of his moral integrity to save his own neck and perhaps stay in power,[1] and then there were those who portrayed him as a brave hero, preferring to take sole responsibility for this grave sin and it’s subsequent punishment, rather than endanger his people.[2] There were those who saw him as a brilliant tactician, whose intention all along was to expose the hidden idolatrous elements amongst the people and root them out once and for all,[3] and there were those who portrayed him as having had good intentions, trying to create a replacement for Moshe, not for G-d, but since he was not a good tactician, a loud minority understood the Calf to be idolatry thereby causing the anger of G-d.[4] Some tried to portray the complexity of Aaron’s decision- making process as having to choose between the lesser of two evils: Allowing the people to worship idolatry, after which there can be Teshuvah, or going against the will of the people and possibly endangering them even more if they should kill him, a Priest, which is a sin after which there is no Teshuva.[5]

There are advantages and disadvantages to each of these interpretations, yet any attempt to understand Aaron’s behavior may be dependent upon what our assumption is as to how good and righteous a leader Aaron really was at that moment. Therefore, perhaps we may learn from these various interpretations, that any attempt to interpret such questionable actions of a leader (or anyone for that matter) is, and should be, a complex and serious matter handled with utmost care and sensitivity. One must not jump rashly to conclusions and should remain open to alternative explanations offered by others, and respect those other contradictory interpretations. This I believe, is the challenge of this story, and indeed the challenge of Talmud Torah in general.

May it be G-d’s will, that through our deeper ability to understand and respect the many different interpretations of the Torah, and perspectives within the Jewish People, that we will merit to be a generation worthy of good leaders. As the Talmud writes: “As the generation so is its leaders, and as its leaders’ so is the generation.” (Yerushalemi Sanhedrin 2:6).


[1] See Targum Neophiti and Fragment Targum Exodus. 32:5 “And Aaron saw Hur [slaughtered] before it and was afraid, and built an alter in front of it.” Implying that Aaron was only afraid of dying himself. The idea of Hur dying comes from Exod. 24:14. And the idea that Aaron being afraid appears also in Ps. Philo 12:2-3, as well as the Peshitia and the Samaritan Targum which read instead of “Vayar”, he saw, “Vayira”- “he was afraid”. See Ibn Ezra 32:1 who sights this possibility and rejects it.

[2] See Lev. Rabbah 10:3 third opinion, which seems to rework the earlier idea as mentioned in the Targumim, by introducing the verse from Lam. 2:20. (See also Rashi Exod. 32:5, who combines all three opinions into one).

[3] See the comment of Rav Sa’adiah Gaon as sighted in the Ibn Ezra ibid. who compares Aaron to the King Yehu in Kings II 10:19

[4] This is the opinion of the Iben Ezra himself, and similar answers are offered by the Ramban here, and Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, Kuzari I 96-97. The opinion that Aaron was only stalling till Moshe came back may also be an example of good intentions but poor execution since he did not stall for long enough. See Lev. Rabbah ibid the second opinion, and Tanchuma Ki Tisa 19, and Iben Ezra’s comment on this opinion. Also, the opinion that Aaron did not know what would come out of the furnace portrays him as not a clever leader at all, see Ibn Ezra on this opinion as well.

[5] See Lev. Rabba ibid. first opinion. Also see Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 7a, as well as the debate between Rashi “Mikra zeh”, and Tos. “Keneged Ma’aseh Ha’egel.” Also, Meiri, Beit HaBehira there. See Rav Yuval Sherlo article on this question, “Is it Possible to Compromise on Heavenly Matters” (Hebrew) in Jewish Political Studies Review v. 12, Numbers 3:4 (Fall 5761/2000)