The Golden Calf
The sin of the golden calf: What did the people want? What actually was the golden calf? What was Aharon’s role?
In order to understand the sin of the golden calf, it is important to realize that the people who left Egypt, especially the mixed multitude of Egyptians who joined the children of Israel, were still steeped in the idolatry and superstitions of Egyptian society. They never completely connected to the concept of an intangible G-d who delivered them from slavery miraculously. Rather, they were much more connected to Moshe as their leader. Seeing that 40 days had passed since Moshe ascended Mount Sinai, and fearing the worst, they looked for a new symbol of leadership. The logical choice would have been to turn to Aharon to take Moshe’s place, but they were afraid that, as a mortal human being, the same fate would befall him. Instead, they sought to rely on a talisman, an amulet — a physical object that was considered to have the magical power to serve as an intermediary to bring about the miraculous interventions in nature that they had been experiencing. They assumed that Moshe himself had had access to such items, and they wanted to replace them as soon as possible. They also wanted the amulet to be in the shape of a calf since the constellation of Taurus the Bull precedes the constellation of Aries the Ram, which was the symbol of Egyptian idolatry. Since Taurus precedes Aries in the astronomical sense, they considered it superior. Either they assumed that this was the symbol that Moshe had relied upon, or that Aharon would choose it as the most appropriate symbol.
It is likely that they had been pressuring Aharon for a number of days as they had become increasingly concerned over Moshe’s failure to return. At this point Aharon employed every delaying tactic possible, knowing that Moshe’s return was imminent. He first asked for the women’s gold jewelry, knowing that they would not easily relinquish them. However, the men, in their eagerness, took their jewelry from them immediately. Aharon then threw the gold into the fire and after it melted, he carefully formed it into a small calf. He did not pour the gold into a calf-shaped mold. Rather, he took a long time to craft the object, with two intentions in mind. Firstly, it would be another delaying tactic. And secondly, he wanted to make a perfect amulet. This way, when it would be shown to be powerless, they could not claim that it was hastily and imperfectly manufactured.
However, there were those from the mixed multitude who didn’t wait to see if it had any particular spiritual power. They immediately bowed down to it in an idolatrous fashion, seeing it as a replication of the item that Moshe had used to bring down G-d’s influence from above. Because this group was from the Egyptian multitude, they referred to the amulet as “your g-d”, meaning the intermediary which Moshe relied upon to bring ‘you’, the children of Israel out of Egypt. The word “g-d” is expressed in plural form, to indicate that they were not denying that G-d was One, but rather that He employed numerous spiritual forces.
This explains why Aharon did not have to give up his life rather than create an idol, since the amulet was not an actual idol. Aharon then volunteered to build an altar for sacrifices and a celebration to take place the next day. He was careful to point out that this would be a festival in honor of G-d, not the amulet. Aharon rejected their offers of assistance and built the altar himself, which of course took longer. He claimed that it would be disrespectful to the altar if anyone other than he, the High Priest, participated in the construction. This, of course, was another delaying tactic. He also assumed that G-d would inform Moshe of what was going on and that Moshe would then immediately return. However, when the people saw the next morning that Aharon did not immediately offer the sacrifices they took matters into their own hands. They offered sacrifices themselves and proceeded to engage in idolatrous behavior. Clearly, Aharon did not participate in any actual idol worship and did everything possible to prevent the people from obtaining or worshipping the amulet.
However, after Moshe descends and destroys the golden calf, he criticizes Aharon and asks him, “What did the people do to you that you brought a grievous sin upon them?” What Moshe meant was what did they do to you that forced you to fashion the amulet in the first place? Moshe recognized that Aharon was not responsible for manufacturing an actual idol; it was the people who turned it into an object of worship. Aharon’s response was that the people always were in doubt whether G-d was truly with them, yet they didn’t ask for an actual idol. They only asked for a symbol of leadership to bring down the Divine influences which Moshe has possessed. He told Moshe that he did everything he could to delay since he was certain that Moshe’s return was imminent. He tells Moshe, “I asked the people to donate the gold jewelry according to each individual’s ability and means. I hoped that arguments would ensue as to who should give more and who should give less and this would cause a further delay. However, they acted immediately and did not even look for other materials that would normally be needed to fashion such an object. I had no idea that it would end up as an object of idolatry.”
In this Torah portion Aharon receives no punishment. However, in Devarim (Chapter 20) Moshe tells the people, in recalling this incident, that G-d became very angry with Aharon to the point of almost destroying him if not for Moshe’s entreaties on his behalf. When all is said and done, the tragedy did come about, at least indirectly, through his actions. The incident of the golden calf, in combination with the behavior of Moshe and Aharon in regard to the incident of the striking of the rock later on, resulted in Aharon being denied entry into the Land of Israel.