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Torah Sparks

February 26, 2005 - 17 Adar I 5765

Annual: Ex. 30:11 - 34:35 (Etz Hayim, p. 523; Hertz p. 350)
Triennial: Ex. 30:11 - 31:17 (Etz Hayim, p. 523; Hertz p. 350)
Haftarah: I Kings 18:1 - 39 (Etz Hayim, p. 548; Hertz p. 369)

Prepared by Rabbi Mark B. Greenspan
Oceanside Jewish Center, Oceanside, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director


One of the most troubling figures in the book of Exodus is Aaron. While he served his brother Moses faithfully and was the first High Priest in the Tabernacle, he was also at least partially responsible for the worship of the golden calf in the wilderness. Less than six weeks after Israel received the Torah and heard the voice of God at Mount Sinai the people of Israel had a failure of faith. When Moses did not return promptly from his encounter with God on Mount Sinai, they thought he was dead. (According to the Midrash he was only six hours late in returning) The people came to Aaron and demanded that he make them "a god." With little argument Aaron acquiesced to their demands. Was Aaron wrong to give in to the people's demands? What might have motivated him to make the Golden Calf?

Theme #1: The Two Faces of Aaron: Did He Compromise or Acquiesce?

"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 happened to him. Aaron said to them, "Take off your gold rings that are on your ears and the ears of your wives, your sons and your daughters and bring them to me." (Exodus 32:1-2)

Derash: Study

  • When Aaron saw how things stood, he was afraid and attempted to distract them with subterfuges. Thus he said, "Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives" (Exod. 32:2), a difficult request to execute, since the wives were likely to balk. Indeed, when the men went to their wives, they defied them, saying, "God forbid that we should make an idol and betray the Holy One, who wrought such miracles and mighty deeds in our behalf." So, since the wives refused, "all the [men among the] people broke off the golden rings which were in their ears (Exod. 32:3) -- their own ears. (Exodus Rabbah 41:7)
  • Another explanation of "and he built an altar." They were desirous of building an altar with him, but he would not allow them, saying, "Allow me to build it by myself, for it is not befitting the respect due to the altar that another should build it." Aaron's intention in this was to delay matters; he said to himself, "By the time I build it all by myself Moses will come down." (Exodus Rabbah 41:7)
  • Hur (the husband of Miriam and Aaron's assistant while Moses was gone) stood up and rebuked them, "You stiff-necked people! Do you not remember how many miracles he performed in your behalf?" But the people rose up and slew him. Then they gathered against Aaron and said, "If you make a god for us, well and good; but if not, we will do to you what we did to Hur." When Aaron saw how things stood, he was afraid and attempted to distract them with subterfuges. (Sefer Aggadah, by Bialik and Ravinistzky)
  • Aaron is consistently portrayed in Jewish lore as a peacemaker and conciliator. Moses was the lawgiver proclaiming standards and prohibitions, the prophet who denounced those who fell short of those standards. Aaron in his priestly aspect met and accepted people where they were . In this instance however, Aaron's inclination to accept rather than challenge popular will led to misfortune. (Etz Hayim Commentary, p. 530)

Questions for Discussion

  1. Put yourself in Aaron's place. What would you have done? When faced with an angry mob, how do you think a leader should respond? What does the Torah actually say?
  2. How do these texts portray Aaron? Which ones portray him favorably and which ones seem to criticize him for his decision? How are they different from one another? Do you find them convincing? Why or why not?
  3. Do you think Aaron was wrong to acquiesce to the people's demand? When should a leader take a stand and when should he or she step aside even though the results of the person's actions may be disastrous?
  4. What are the limits to compromise and conciliation for a Jewish leader in a congregation today? To what extent should he respect and be cognizant of the popular will of the people even when it is not consistent with Jewish law and values?
  5. How else could Aaron have handled this explosive situation? Why not put him on trial. Try a role plan let one person play Aaron and two others serve as the prosecuting and the defense attorney. Let someone else play judge. How would you defend or accuse Aaron?

Theme #2: Justice or Mercy: The Thirteen Attributes of God

The Lord passed before him and proclaimed: The Lord, the Lord, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment but visits iniquity of parents upon children and children's children, upon third and fourth generation. (Exodus 34: 6-7)

Derash: Study

  • "The Lord passed before him and proclaimed: The Lord, the Lord, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and granting pardon." (The Thirteen Attributes as they are found in the Siddur)
  • "The concluding words of the Biblical passage which comprise the Thirteen Attributes, "But that will by no means clear the guilty" (Exodus 34:7) are omitted to underscore the predominance of the quality of mercy (middat harahamim) over that of strict justice (middat hadin). (Justice and Mercy By Rabbi Max Arzt)
  • "And the Lord passed before him and said, The Lord, the Lord, God merciful and gracious…" Rabbi Yohanan said: "Were it not so stated in the Torah, one could not (because of its bold anthropomorphism) say this: The Holy One, blessed be He, wrapped himself in a Tallit like one who leads the congregation in prayer, showed Moses this order of prayer and said to him: "Whenever Israel sins let them recite this same order of prayer and I will forgive them.'" (Rosh Hashanah 17b)
  • According to our Selichot version of the Thirteen Attributes, the single word ve-nakeh ("and He acquits") represents the final attribute. However, if we compare this with the actual biblical source, we find rather surprisingly, that we have curtailed the full version of this attribute which in the original conveys the exact opposite sense... Abbreviating a biblical verse in this way does however, run counter to a Talmudic principle that "we may not stop in the middle of a verse (in order to create a separate verse) at a place where Moses did not stop. This prohibition was understood, however, to apply only when reading from the Torah. To employ a half verse in the context of prayer and petition was regarded as outside the scope of the prohibition. (Prayer and Penitence by Jeffery M. Cohen)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Why do you think God proclaims this list of attributes at this point in time following the sin of the Golden Calf? What is the connection between this proclamation and the command immediately before this in which God tells Moses to carve a new set of tablets "Which you shattered?" Who is God forgiving here?
  2. Notice that the list of attributes end, "by no means clears the guilty" in the Bible but in the prayer, by leaving off the last word it says "He clears the guilty." What motivated the Rabbis to make such a radical change in the Biblical text? What were the Rabbis trying to say about our relationship to the text?
  3. How do you feel about this verse? Why do you think the sages left this part of the verse out of the prayer book? Were they justified in doing this even though it completely changed the meaning of the verse? Do you think the sages rejected this idea that God punishes the guilty "unto the third and fourth generation"? If so how could they justify it appearing in the Bible in the first place?
  4. What does it mean to say that God forgives? Do you believe that God forgives? Do you believe that God punishes? How is God's forgiveness different from human forgiveness?
  5. The statement in the Talmud makes the proclamation of the Thirteen Attributes sound almost magical; the very recitation of them means that one will be forgiven for ones wrong doing. Think of how often we recite these verses in the Selichot service on Yom Kippur? How do you feel about this statement? What must we do to seek forgiveness from God?

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