United We Fall, Divided We Stand: The Complicated Legacy of Aharon

Who was Aharon?

Certainly, if one were to write a biography of our first Kohen Gadol, this week’s Parsha of Ki Tisa would play a prominent role. Yet Aharon’s role in the story of the Chet Ha’egel (Golden Calf) is as complicated and complex as his legacy overall. The Aharon we know from Pirkei Avot, the “Ohev Shalom V’Rodef Shalom,” the lover and pursuer of peace, appears largely absent from the written record. The Chet Ha’egel, Mei Merieva (the watering rock, where he is ruled inelegible to enter the Land of Israel), the story (Bamidbar 12) in which Aharon tattles on Moshe and his Kushi wife, and the account of Nadav and Avihu’s death (where Aharon is chastised by Moshe for his response) all paint a portrait of Aharon that is at best nuanced and at worst problematic. He appears to vacillate between regrettable gaffe and outsized recognition, as he does here when, chronologically, the Chet Ha’egel is followed by Aharon’s being fitted for his royal vestments.

More specifically, in this week’s Parsha, Aharon takes it upon himself to create a bait-and-switch that would seem to cloud his legacy of love and peace:

שמות פרק לב פסוק ב
וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם אַהֲרֹן פָּרְקוּ נִזְמֵי הַזָּהָב אֲשֶׁר בְּאָזְנֵי נְשֵׁיכֶם בְּנֵיכֶם וּבְנֹתֵיכֶם וְהָבִיאוּ אֵלָי:

רש”י – פרק לב פסוק ב
באזני נשיכם: אמר אהרן בלבו, “הנשים והילדים חסים על תכשיטיהן, שמא יתעכב הדבר, ובתוך כך יבא משה.” והם לא המתינו, ופרקו מעל עצמן:

Aharon’s plan was to create a diversion tactic that would lead to a day or more of widespread familial strife. Hardly the same Aharon that we meet later, at the time of his death:

במדבר פרק כ פסוק כט
כט. וַיִּרְאוּ כָּל הָעֵדָה כִּי גָוַע אַהֲרֹן וַיִּבְכּוּ אֶת אַהֲרֹן שְׁלשִׁים יוֹם כֹּל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל:

רש”י – במדבר פרק כ פסוק כט
כל בית ישראל: האנשים והנשים, לפי שהיה אהרן רודף שלום ומטיל אהבה בין בעלי מריבה ובין איש לאשתו:

Avot D’Rebbi Nattan expands on this story, explaining how Aharon would fictitiously tell feuding spouses that the other spouse wanted to make up in order to end strife and bring about renewed matrimonial harmony. But that story, and this Rashi, seem very different from the Aharon in this week’s Parsha who creates enmity among spouses to delay the creation of the calf.

Perhaps in order to better understand the character of Aharon, we need to take a broader view of Parshat Ki Tisa, which contains several seemingly unrelated stories. In the Parsha’s opening account of the census, the half-shekel requirement can perhaps best be understand as the creation of yesh mei’ayin, something from nothing. While each person can accomplish nothing with only his own half shekel, tremendous potential is unleashed by its addition to a collection of other ones. Yet that same message can be misapplied, as the Jews learn in the later story of the Chet Ha’Egel, when the very same unity leads to disarray and disaster. Think of the Dor Haflaggah, the generation which built the Tower of Bavel, which followed the Dor HaMabbul, the Generation of the Flood, back in Parshat Noach. Although their sinning against God was treated with greater leniency than their fathers’ sinning against each other, and so they were dispersed rather than destroyed, the latter generation still had not achieved unity for a constructive purpose and so were punished. Their descendents in Ki Tisa, as well, misunderstood the message implied by the half shekel, instead utilizing unity for a destructive purpose.

The metamorphosis of the Jewish People parallels that of Aharon, whose opposite and equally negative change causes him to realize that not all love is warranted. When the cause for unity is negative, the impulse towards love and acceptance must change. At that point, it behooves Aharon to create familial strife in order to preserve the health of the Nation. Avraham, the Ish Chesed, was forced into a similar struggle when he was ordered to bind Yitzchak as an offering. Yaakov, the Ish Emmet, was forced to lie to and deceive his father. It seems that the ultimate test of having a middah is knowing when not to have it, when to put it away because to do so, at that moment, is as much the will of God as it is to exercise that middah the rest of the time. Aharon, as well, needed to know not just when to exercise his trait of Ahavah, but when not to do so.

Sandwiching the Parsha’s outermost stories are the description of the כיור, the Priestly sink, and Shabbat. The first seems terribly out of place, coming two Parshiot after the description of most of the Mishkan’s other artifacts. Equally surprising is that before we are told anything substantial about the כיור, we are told something that we are never told about any of the other vessels: its location, halfway between the Ohel Moed and the Mizbeach. Which brings to mind the question: why is the Mizbeach outside of the Ohel Moed at all? Why not extend the walls of the Ohel Moed to include the Mizbeach? But being halfway between the Ohel Moed and the Mizbeach is important because it represents a compromise between the creativity and input invited by the Mizbeach and the top-down prescription of spirituality mandated by the Mishkan. There are times when our own ingenuity is welcomed and even critical, when it is ours to find and utilize the emotional cache that makes us each who we are, whether it is the chesed of Avraham or the ahava of Aharon or whatever strength makes each of us unique. But there are also times when we are called upon to stand in place, like the other vessels of the Ohel Moed, and be told what to do, even if it means uncomfortably suspending the very trait which makes us feel most comfortable. Shabbat, likewise, is famously a day which is חצי לה’, חצי לכם, containing elements through which we are encouraged to create our own form of spirituality and others through which it is prescribed for us.

The test is complex for each of us. We are given talents, unique portals through which to access spirituality. And we are told that, at times, these very portals are to be closed in deference to a differing dictate by the Creator. In Aharon’s case, being an Ohev Yisrael all of the time would have stood in contradistinction to the very God he would have been professing to serve through that Ahava. I once heard from an old Rabbi in Yerushalayim that any Jewish book using the term “Ahavat Chinam” is not a real sefer. “We tried Ahavat Chinam back in the ’60’s – free love – and it wasn’t too successful!” A healthy dose of skepticism may not always be a bad ingredient to mix in with our Ahavat Yisrael. As Shlomo Hamelech said, “עת לאהוב, ועת לשנוא.”

As our lives vacillate between the soothing certainty of the Ohel Moed and the uncomfortable coldness of feeling its door slam behind us as we stand outside the Mishkan and need to make our own choices, we must realize when the time has come to suspend our own judgment in favor of Hashem’s. As they say, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” No middah, however good, ever deserves to be divorced from the scrutiny brought upon it from our Maker Whom we use it to serve. Knowing when we have left the Ohel Moed and entered into the realm of self-definition, however, is a challenge that stands for a lifetime.

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