Aaron, Moses, and the Golden Calf

Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11−34:35

D'Var Torah By: Allison Bergman Vann

Focal Point

  • Moses said to Aaron: "What did this people do to you that you have brought such great sin upon them?" Aaron said, "Let not my lord be enraged. You know that this people is bent on evil. They said to me, 'Make us a god to lead us; for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt―we cannot tell what has happened to him.' So I said to them, 'Whoever has gold, take it off!' They gave it to me and I hurled it into the fire and out came this calf!" (Exodus 32:21-24)

  • The next day Moses said to the people, "You have been guilty of a great sin. Yet I will now go up toAdonai; perhaps I may win forgiveness for your sin." Moses went back to Adonai and said, "Alas, this people is guilty of a great sin in making themselves a god of gold. Now if You will forgive their sin [well and good]; but if not, erase me from the record which you have written!" But Adonai said to Moses, "He who has sinned against Me, him only will I erase from My record. Go now, lead the people where I told you. See, My angel shall pass before you. But when I make an accounting, I will bring them to account for their sins." (Exodus 32:30-34)

D'var Torah

The responses of Aaron and Moses to the incident of the Golden Calf are strikingly different. Aaron fails to exert decisive leadership to prohibit this blatant act of idolatry. Nachmanides explains that "Aaron let the people loose, and left them without any counsel or instruction, so that they became like sheep scattered among the mountains without counselor and guide." Aaron is unwilling to lead the people; instead, it seems, he let the people lead him.

Furthermore, it appears that Aaron is a collaborator―if not an instigator―in the creation of the idol. Yet he attempts to hide his role, by blaming the people who were "bent on evil." He tries even further to shun blame by stating that the Golden Calf had simply appeared from the fire.

Moses, by contrast, acts more responsibly. When God tells him about the Golden Calf, Moses begins his descent back to his community. It is interesting that he does not destroy the stone tablets when he hears of the sin, but only after he sees the people dancing around the Golden Calf.

Perhaps Moses shatters the Ten Commandments when he realizes that the tablets themselves can be regarded as idols, and not as a means to cleave to God. A nineteenth-century commentator noted that, "There is no intrinsic holiness in things. Only God is intrinsically holy. Physical objects can be holy insofar as they lead people to God" (Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary [Philadelphia: JPS, 2001] p. 534).

Moses, the uncompromising idealist, is concerned about the connections that he and the people have to God. On the other hand, Aaron, the pragmatist and peacemaker, is preoccupied with preserving his own wellbeing and his popularity with the people.

Aaron's leadership style is in stark contrast to that of Moses. Although Moses is humble, he stands up to scrutiny and challenge, while Aaron is quick to appease and coddle the people. Moses is willing to see potential merit where Aaron sees evil. And, Moses takes the weight of the community's sin on his shoulders, while Aaron is too weak to accept responsibility.

Later commentators depict Aaron as a victim. For example, a popular midrash informs us that Aaron acted simply to placate the people until Moses returned. We also read the following in Tz'enah Ur'enah, a seventeenth-century Eastern-European text comprised of Torah commentary, midrash, and ethical teachings:

Aaron told them, "Take your wives' earrings and I will make a god of them." He thought that the wives would not give over their jewelry so readily, thus allowing Moses more time to return. Aaron himself knew that Moses was to return the next day, but Israel, in their wickedness, refused to listen to him. Aaron feared that they would kill him, as they had killed Hur, his nephew.

Other midrashim follow the same line, excusing Aaron's behavior with rationalizations, such as this: Aaron was attempting to follow God's wishes, but feared for his life, and therefore he constructed the idol as a delaying tactic.

It is apparent that the ancient Rabbis understood the gravity of the sin of the Golden Calf, but they were concerned with upholding Aaron's reputation. When Moses addresses God, he speaks of the people, not of Aaron. Moses successfully enables Aaron not only to preserve his life, but also to continue as a leader of the people, by establishing the Aaronide priesthood.

Yet, if we create a way out for Aaron despite his actions, then it is difficult to derive a sound lesson from the Golden Calf saga. Aaron's rejection of responsibility and the midrashic painting of him as a victim can soften the powerful message of this narrative: it is important to own up to one's actions.

Ever since the days when Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the serpent for the eating of the forbidden fruit, the attempt to transfer responsibility has been a powerful human tendency.

So many times, when we are accused of a wrongdoing, we quickly point a finger in the other direction. Whether or not that finger is pointed in the right direction, we are obliged to recognize that we have naturally defensive natures. I am struck by how Aaron's reaction is so similar to my own or to what I have observed in others. Aaron reaction is, simply put, instinctive. Who, after all, wants to be wrong?

Yet, taking responsibility is a goal to be achieved and a sign of spiritual maturity. In this instance, Moses is a superior teacher to Aaron.

By the Way

  • Because humans had denied God's presence in life, even in nature, and instead found the premise of life in owning objects and the purpose in pleasure . . . a people were brought into the ranks of the nations who, through their history and life, would declare God the single creator of all existence, and realization of God's will the only purpose in life. (Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888: rabbi, writer, leader, and exponent of Orthodoxy in nineteenth-century Germany)

  • We all strive to be leaders―but once we get there, do we think about what we'll do with our newfound position? This poem attests to this predicament:

    I wanna be the leader
    I wanna be the leader
    Can I be the leader?
    Can I? I can?
    Promise? Promise?
    Yippee, I'm the leader
    I'm the leader
    OK What shall we do?
    (Roger McGough, b. 1937)

Your Guide

  1. Do Aaron's actions seem to be a natural byproduct of a tense situation? Should Aaron have acted differently?

  2. Aaron stated, about the Golden Calf, ". . . out came this calf!" Do you think Aaron intended for us to believe that God (or some other deity) created this Golden Calf?

  3. Why do you think Moses intercedes for Aaron?

Rabbi Allison Bergman Vann is rabbi at Suburban Temple-Kol Ami in Beachwood, OH.

Reference Materials

Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11–34:35 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 632–662; Revised Edition, pp. 581–606; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 495–520 

Originally published: