Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35 )
Perhaps the most famous episode of the post-Exodus experience is the construction of the eigel hazahav (golden calf). When Moshe returned from his 40 days on Har Sinai, he discovered that not only had Yisrael appeared to have betrayed him and God, but that his brother, Aharon, was implicated in the crime. Moshe questions Aharon about his role in the calf's construction, and he replies:
Don't be angry, my lord. You know the people, for they follow a wicked path. They said to me, "Make for us powers which will go before us. As for this man Moshe, who brought us up from Egypt, we don't know what has become of him." And I said to them, "Whoever has gold, rip it off and give it to me." Then I cast it into the fire, and this calf emerged. (Shemos 32:22-24)
Then I cast it into the fire - and I didn't know that this calf would emerge. (Rashi loc. cit.)
This episode is particularly enigmatic; apart from the general problems, why did Aharon throw the gold into the fire in the first place? It seems hardly excusable to have involved himself at all.
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THE REAL PROBLEM
To answer this, we need to closely examine the root cause of klal Yisrael's original demand for the calf. We may assume that Aharon penetrated the depths of their consciousness and responded accordingly. Aharon realized that the problem was caused by the absence of Moshe. Perhaps the greatest achievement of Moshe was to keep the klal as a unified entity, preventing it from splitting into factions. There was no internal unity within klal Yisrael until after they crossed the Jordan and entered the land. Before that time, they needed a man of Moshe's stature and immense spirituality to guide them through their collective experiences and to ensure that no selfish interest took control of the people. His loss, however temporary, threw the nascent nation into disarray. They rapidly became a rabble of individuals, rather than a cohesive unit. They had managed to hold themselves together for the forty days during which Moshe had promised to be absent, but now, when they thought that the time had elapsed and that he was gone forever, their ability to continue without a unified force collapsed.
Aharon, as Moshe's surrogate, had to address this issue when the confused and bereft people stood before him to request an alternative leadership. Aharon assumed that if he could tackle the problem at its root, then the spurious demands, of which it was symptomatic, would disappear. They would be comforted by some alternative means of unifying them and would return to their homes to await what he knew to be Moshe's imminent arrival. Aharon attempted to effect this through a physical act - a community-wide project which would unify the people. So he asked them all to contribute gold, which he intended to melt into one large ingot. This, apart from involving them all in one activity, would symbolize the cure to their problem - each individual personality, represented by each item of jewelry, would be merged into one community, represented by the single ingot.
Aharon was the ideal person to effect this aim, for his very essence yearned to bring together estranged parties, to create unity on a local and communal level:
Hillel said, "Be one of the pupils of Aharon HaKohen - loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and drawing them near to Torah." (Avos 1:12)
Aharon's role in the golden-calf episode was rather like that of an expert doctor, who, when attempting to heal a patient, looks at the cause of the illness and cures that. The symptoms will automatically disappear once the treatment has been successful.
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WHAT WENT WRONG?
We now understand why Aharon allowed himself to become involved with the incident at all; he believed that he could solve the problem by making the ingot. But it all went horribly wrong, and, as we saw, the calf emerged from the fire, to Aharon's complete surprise and undoubted horror. This disaster was caused by the involvement of the eirev rav - the so-called mixed multitude of non-Jewish hangers-on who joined klal Yisrael at the time of the Exodus. We have discussed before that when an alien item is added to a distinct group, the result is not the group plus the outsider but complete ruin for the group. This is what happened to Aharon's plan. The eirev rav were not interested in the welfare of klal Yisrael and had no real fears about their ability to cope without Moshe; they were simply troublemakers, opportunists with their own agenda. This means that Aharon's ingot was partially infused with their wicked intent, thus ruining the whole project. This allowed evil forces to rest on the gold, resulting in the eigel.
When the Torah describes the manufacture of the calf, we learn:
All the people ripped off the gold rings which were in their noses, and they brought them to Aharon. And he took from their hands... (Shemos 32:3-4)
This was the mistake that Aharon made - he took the gold directly from the hands of the troublemakers. This was infused with their wicked, self-oriented aims and was thus able to pervert the objective which Aharon had intended for it.
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Not only was Aharon not criticized for his role in the eigel, but he was actually rewarded, for he only got involved to delay them until Moshe came back. God said to him, "Aharon, I know your true intention. By your life, I shall set none other than you over the offerings of My children..." (Shemos Rabbah 37:2)
So we see that as a reward for his good intent Aharon was given the service in the Mishkan and, eventually, the Beis HaMikdash. Careful consideration will reveal that this great gift was middah keneged middah (measure for measure). The task of the kohen gadol, Aharon's eventual role, is to unify the hearts and minds of klal Yisrael in their worship of God. Of course, this is just what he intended to achieve through his involvement in the eigel, for which God justly rewarded him for eternity.