We can read the episode of Egel Hazahav, the Golden Calf, which dominates our Torah portion, in two distinct ways. It is either a ringing indictment of Aaron, or it’s an example of a leader thinking quickly to make the best of a rotten situation. Is he complicit in building the calf–remember, he is the fundraiser and artisan–or does he do whatever he can to avoid what seems to be a story with an inevitably awful ending?
The rabbis of antiquity did what they could to salvage the reputation of the man who was, after all, Israel’s first and beloved High Priest. They find in Aaron’s words stalling tactics, attempts to discourage the masses by asking them to part with their precious metals, and other diversionary tactics. One classic example of the rabbinic defense argument is brought by Rabbi Eliezer, in contemplation of the Torah’s words (Exodus 32:5), “When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it.” What, asked Rabbi Eliezer, is the “this” that Aaron saw? He saw Hur slaughtered before him, and so he said: If I don’t listen to them, they will do to me what they did to him, and through them will be fulfilled the words (Lamentations 2:20), “Alas, priest and prophet are slain,” and there will be no rehabilitating them. Better they should worship the calf; maybe they can be rehabilitated through teshuvah.
In analyzing Aaron’s leadership skills, it seems to me that even this defense of his behavior leaves behind an air of subtle critique. Granted, Aaron is faced with a life-and-death decision; the fresh corpse of his nephew, Hur (the same Hur who helped Aaron hold Moshe’s arms aloft in the battle with Amalek), is a powerful indicator of how much danger he is in. But leadership should not be about making last-minute, reactive decisions. In the 40 days that Moshe was gone and Aaron was in charge, what did Aaron do to keep the people calm? Did he anticipate their excitement, with its potential to turn to anxiety, on the final day of Moshe’s absence? What proactive steps did he take to diminish the possibility of unrest? Sure, we evaluate leaders by their demonstration of courage under fire. The question is, what about fire prevention?
You be the judge: Aaron–guilty or innocent?