Aaron and Leadership

This past shabbat we read a most difficult passage from the Torah. The portion Ki Tissa includes the description of the golden calf - arguably the worst sin the Israelites committed. The Israelites lost patience waiting for Moses to descend Mt. Sinai and they implored his brother Aaron to build them a god. Aaron, remarkably agrees. Why? How could the future high priest readily agree? Was it just a delaying tactic, hoping that Moses would appear at any moment? Did Aaron think that Moses and God would make things right so it wouldn't matter? Why did Aaron help the people do this?

To understand this we need to put his actions in context. We first meet Aaron when he reunited with his brother. Moses had to escape Egypt after he killed the taskmaster and in Midian he found God at the burning bush on Mt. Sinai. There, Moses accepted the mission to lead the people knowing that Aaron would be his spokesperson. At the end of chapter 4 of Exodus, Aaron gathers the people in Egypt and he performs the signs that God showed Moses, and he told them all that happened to Moses. In chapter 7 Aaron serves as the tool to perform some of the plagues. He raises his staff to initiate some of them.

Therefore, Aaron had be seen as a magician - a man who is used to performing signs and wonders. He knows no other way to act. His only contact with God is hearing orders being given. He doesn't hear the bigger picture or the vision as Moses has. So at this point at the golden calf Aaron knows no other way to act except to do magic. Remarkably he has the power, but he abuses it.

Why does he still become the high priest? Perhaps it's a form of atonement and education. As high priest he has the opportunity to meet the people one on one as they bring sacrifices. he meets them in time of spiritual urgency and he has the mechanism to respond to their religious needs. Perhaps it is through that function that the rabbis can teach that we should strive to be like Aaron, seeking and pursuing peace and bringing people closer to Torah.