A Golden Calf and a Plea for Mercy

Parashat Ki Tissa

The two most dramatic elements within Ki Tissa are clearly the sin of the Golden Calf and Moshe’s following plea before HaShem for mercy.

Regarding the sin of the golden calf, the people of Israel grew agitated with Moshe and took matters into their own hands:

“They gathered around Aaron and said to him, ‘Get busy and make us gods to go ahead of us; because this Moshe, the man that brought us up from the land of Egypt – we don’t know what has become of him.’” (Exodus 32: 1)

Aaron cooperated. Whether his actions were the result of fear or an attempt at appeasement, many authorities agree that Aaron’s accompanying actions were his biggest failure. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz states that Aaron’s participation in creating the golden calf was “the worst failure of his career.” This assessment is supported by Nehama Leibowitz who sees within the narrative not only the failure of Aaron and the sin of the Israelites, but a deliberate warning that human beings are capable of acting nobly at one moment and ugly at the next.

Upon seeing the people singing and dancing before the golden calf, Moshe became enraged:

“He threw the tablets he had been holding and shattered them at the base of the mountain. Seizing the calf they had made, he melted it in the fire and ground it into powder, which he scattered on the water. Then he made the people of Israel drink it.” (Exodus 32:19-20)

Moshe confronted his brother Aaron, pleading “What did these people do to you to make you lead them into such terrible sin?” Aaron replied with one of the sorriest excuses in the Torah:

“My lord should not be so angry. You know what these people are like, that they are determined to do evil … I answered them, ‘Anyone with gold, strip it off!’ So they gave it to me. I threw it in the fire, and out jumped this calf!”  (Exodus 32:22-24)

Not only does Aaron deflect responsibility by pointing the finger at the people, but he makes an excuse, as though his participation was only passive – “I threw it into the fire, and out jumped this calf!”

Afterwards Moshe went back up the mountain to plead with HaShem not to destroy the Jewish people.G-d agrees and Moshe requests to see G-d’s glory. Placing Moshe in the cleft of a rock, HaShem allowed His presence to pass by Moshe. Moshe then cut two new stone tablets, and HaShem descended upon the mountain in a thick cloud and proclaimed what has come to be known as the Thirteen Attributes of G-d.

Within these two dramatic events we see two very different responses to responsibility under pressure. Aaron gave into the desires of the people, and when confronted made an excuse. Moshe, when confronted, took on the responsibility for the actions of the Jewish people. Instead of making an excuse and passing the blame on the people, he stood before the presence G-d and pleaded for mercy.

G-d is not looking for perfect people. Rather, G-d is looking for people who are humble and obedient. Humility requires that we not only seek to do HaShem’s will, but when we fall short, to come humbly in repentance, and take responsibility for our actions. Let’s stop making excuses for the tasks at hand and let us walk humbly together, like Moshe, and prepare the way for the return of Mashiach!

About Rabbi Joshua

I'm a Rabbi, writer, thinker, mountain biker, father and husband ... not necessarily in that order. According to my wife, however, I'm just a big nerd. I have degrees in dead languages and ancient stuff. I have studied in various Jewish institutions, including an Orthodox yeshiva in Europe. I get in trouble for making friends with perfect strangers, and for standing on chairs to sing during Shabbos dinner. In addition to being the Senior Rabbi of Beth Emunah Messianic Synagogue in Agoura Hills, CA, I write regularly for several publications and speak widely in congregations and conferences. My wife is a Southern-fried Jewish Beltway bandit and a smokin' hot human rights attorney... and please don’t take offense if I dump Tabasco sauce on your cooking.
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3 Responses to A Golden Calf and a Plea for Mercy

  1. Jesse says:

    Although i believe your conclusion is sound your discussion of Aaron is what i would like to discuss.On the face of it Aaron's involvement, actions and explanation appear to be pretty weak. However, i'm not convinced that your opinion of Aaron is correct. Take for example the fact that God speaks to Moses and declares “Go, get down! For your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves. 8 They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them. They have made themselves a molded calf, and worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!’” (Exodus 32:7-8)God does not say Aaron your brother has led the people into sin, rather He focused his attention on the people themselves. Also was it not the people who commanded Aaron to build gods to lead them?Another point that i have always found interesting is that the people are punished in several ways, forced to consume the ground calf, put to death and later plagued but Aaron appears to get a pass and in fact is later honored by God as the kohen gadol the only one who could enter into the Holy of Holies to intercede for himself and Israel.I have read a few commentaries on this and several have opined that Aaron's role in this was the one of unifying a divided mixed multitude. The discussion goes on to explain that Aarons heart was pure before God but his actions were flawed by the influence of those amongst Israel that worshiped false gods (goyim from Egypt). Therefore Aaron's attempt to unify the people in a task "everyone bring gold" was perverted by those who sought to worship some intermediary rather than God himself. Sadly Rashi says that the greatest punishment of this whole event is the children of Israel being led by an "Angel of God" which indicates that prior to this time God Himslf would lead them and now they would only be lead by an Angel.I will not say whether i agree or disagree with all the commentaries but i will say this, i find that God who is a just God in His judgments would not have been able to contend with Aaron in His presence if Aaron's heart had been defiled therefore i must believe that his heart intention was pure even if his actions were inept.

  2. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Jesse,

    Thank you for your comment. The Torah never tries to hide the shortcomings of our ancestors. This is true with almost every biblical figure. As stated in the article, I agree with many other authorities that this was Aaron's. I do agree with you that he did not necessarily LEAD the people into it, but neither did he discourage them. The problem is that either way Aaron is a leader of the people and responsible for what happened. And as the Cohen Gadol, his actions speak volumes. We leaders are held responsible for such actions. This is exactly the flip side as I pointed out with Moshe. Moshe takes on the responsibility of the people's sin, not as a participant, but as the responsible authority, and pleads with G-d on behalf of the people for mercy and forgiveness.

    Shabbat Shalom!

  3. Anonymous says:

    For thousands of years people have slapped their foreheads and thought, "Seriously – Aaron?! 'Threw it into the fire and out came a calf' ?!?!" Poor guy. I bet he never lives it down. 🙂 Great post. Totally agree. k

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