Aaron’s impatience is the real problem.
Our forefather Aaron does not come off well in this morning’s Torah portion. His response to the Israelite desire to build a golden calf seems inept at best, immoral at worst. His excuse to Moses when confronted seems incredulous at best, inexcusable at worst.
Yet as I say these words of introduction, I can envision our beloved Ruth Shapiro, who died recently, raising her hand to defend Aaron before I have finished my sentence: “Rabbi, you misunderstand. Aaron was delaying. Look, he says, ‘Bring your things tomorrow.’ He knew Moses would return.” Ruth’s defense of Aaron isn’t such a stretch; when you read the text carefully you see he calls the people to worship God, not the calf. Maybe he’s not so bad after all! There’s more to the story.
Let’s take a look at the narrative—and in Kiddush and upcoming days share with me your interpretation of Aaron, and more important, what he teaches us about ourselves. That is why we study.
In Exodus 32 (p. 529): “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.’ Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’ And all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. This he took from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a molten calf. And they exclaimed, ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land ofEgypt!’ When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it, and Aaron announced: ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival of the Lord!’ Early the next day, the people offered up burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being, they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to dance.”
How do you understand Aaron? Was he delaying? Was it God he was worshipping? Was he just being human, preserving his life in the face of a mob whipped into a frenzy? Maybe this is an issue of personality type. Aaron was a pleaser, dependent on the approval of others, and he can’t muster the strength to respond when the people demand he participate in wrongdoing. One interpretation I read explained that Aaron is the person we have all worked with: the person who has risen to his level of incompetence, and has no idea what to do in a crisis. Aaron’s behavior is even more troublesome when we witness his response to Moses questioning him about the event (p. 534, vs. 21). “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 do not know 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.” Really—a calf just popped out? Is Aaron the weak man who rather than admit culpability blames others or makes excuses?
More questions, each question yielding a lesson: Might there truly be mitigating circumstances? Did Moses’s absence beyond the time he said he would return cause a panic that he should have known would occur to a vulnerable people? Should not this have been anticipated? Might the chaos of the moment have been too much for anyone to handle?
Amidst all these questions and possible interpretations, I want to share an interpretation by Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Netivot Shalom Congregation in Berkeley. Rabbi Creditor suggests that Aaron’s mistake is that he acts quickly, without reflecting, getting help, or having the skills to know what to do. His interpretation makes sense to me. I think that is a piece of what happened here. Aaron felt that as leader, he needed to respond immediately, when in fact, he needed not to act. As Rabbi Creditor shared his drash, I thought of times I jumped to give an answer when I really didn’t know the right response, and I answered with decisiveness, when in fact I simply should have just listened, or taken time to think or consult in order to find the right response. I thought of Mrs. Shapiro, who would say, “Rabbi, let me think about it.”
This interpretation of Aaron left me with the awareness of the delicate balance of knowing when to act decisively and when to listen, consult, and not respond.
There is a time to act decisively. If Moses had not acted quickly, God might have destroyed the people. There is a time to not act decisively, to know you don’t possess the skills, wisdom, or knowledge to make the best decision. And there is a time to act despite lacking the best knowledge. Which is it?
Moses has the skills to respond due to his intimacy with God and his experience. He has learned how to respond to the people’s fears and rebellion and has mastered the ability to teach, empower, rebuke, or defend in the right moment. He has the experience that Malcolm Gladwell writes about, the experience that brings success: 10,000 hours. Aaron didn’t have that experience or knowledge. He was in over his head and didn’t have the knowledge to say, “Wait.” Or “Let me consult with other elders. Let me see if Moses is on his way down.” Aaron did not know how to tolerate uncertainty. And neither did the Israelites. Might the real sin of the golden calf be that Israel couldn’t live with uncertainty, and that without a physical manifestation of God, they simply fell apart?
We need to embrace the wisdom of uncertainty, finding the ability to listen and learn, to say, “I don’t know. Let me see.” And it is this ability to tolerate uncertainty that allows us to grow as people and as a religion. There was a powerful article in the New York Times this week entitled “The Dangers of Certainty: A Lesson from Auschwitz.” It was an article about Dr. Jacob Bronowski, a Holocaust survivor who taught that certainty is a very dangerous thing. For Dr. Bronowski, absolute knowledge and anyone who claims it—whether a scientist, a politician, or a religious believer—opens the door to tragedy. When we insist on certainty, that our truth is the only truth, the worst occurs.
For Dr. Bronowski, all scientific information is imperfect, and we have to treat it with humility. When we sit with uncertainty, we push deeper and deeper; our failures are what drive knowledge—as imprecise as it is—forward. It is only when we tolerate uncertainty that we can grow. Knowledge becomes the unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty. Aaron’s tragic mistake is that he felt the situation demanded certainty.
Because Moses was willing to approach God with uncertainty, the door opens to understanding God in different ways as Moses grows in his faith. God who seems determined to destroy the Israelites reveals a different side, a side of forgiveness, as Moses probes deeper. The God who punishes with a vengeance is called by Moses to engage him in encounter: “Hareini et kavod’cha,” show me your essence, Moses pleads. And Moses emerges understanding God not as punishing and angry, but as compassionate and full of grace. It is uncertainty and rejection of dogmatic characterizations that allows Moses to understand God more deeply—then Elijah, then us—in a faith that calls on each of us to continue to grow.
The embrace of uncertainty not only frees us to listen and think rather than respond immediately. It opens the door to different understandings of faith that allow faith to remain relevant and grow. The Chasidic Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner sees the smashing of the tablets by Moses as a shift from the written word, to the notion that we each seek to understand God in the depths of our own hearts. For Rabbi Mordechai, there is a deep, personal connection that links us to God when we seek our own path. Ours is the legacy of embracing uncertainty and the growth that comes from finding the truths deep in our own hearts.