Sunday, March 07, 2010

Does the midrash whitewash Aharon's role in the cheit ha-Eigel, or does it accentuate the fine nuances of the text?

Summary: You might guess correctly that I favor the latter interpretation. Prompted by this post at DovBear.

Post: Aharon forms the eigel hazahav for the benei Yisrael, and he announcing a chag laHashem machar. But is he really a willing participant in this whole ordeal?

DovBear writes:
Exodus 32:5

וַיַּ֣רְא אַהֲרֹ֔ן וַיִּ֥בֶן מִזְבֵּ֖חַ לְפָנָ֑יו וַיִּקְרָ֤א אַֽהֲרֹן֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר חַ֥ג לַיהוָ֖ה מָחָֽר׃

And when Aaron saw it he built an altar before it and Aaron made proclamation and said, Tomorrow is a feast to the LORD

Saw it? What did he see?

According to the ancient interpreters, what he saw was the murder of his nephew Hur. (I don't recall where this first appears, but believe its in the apocrypha. TPJ and TN both have it) Another possibly, also suggested by an ancient interpreter (again, I forget who) is that he saw the angry mob.

Both possibilities are cleverly captured in the Peshita, where it says not that Aaron saw, but that he was afraid (In Hebrew the words are the same.)

All of these explanations are needed; without them the verse tells us that "Aaron saw the golden calf and built an alter [sic]." This reading, though the plain intention of the verse, was untenable to the ancient interpreters who could not tolerate the idea that Aaron might have built the altar of his own volition.
Emphasis my own. I take exception to the last paragraph in particular, which appears to be the goal and conclusion of the post. My peshat-sense is not that this is the plain intention of the verse. And further, that is not what was really bothering these ancient interpreters.

Midrash Rabba offers up the Chur explanation:
אותה שעה עמד עליהם חור, ואמר להם: קציעי צואריא, אין אתם נזכרים מה נסים עשה לכם הקב"ה! מיד, עמדו עליו והרגוהו.
נכנסו על אהרן, שנאמר: ויקהל העם על אהרן, ואמרו לו: כשם שעשינו לזה כך אנו עושים לך, כיון שראה אהרן כך נתיירא, שנאמר: (שמות לב) וירא אהרן ויבן מזבח לפניו. 
It seems to me that the midrash is being sensitive (correctly or incorrectly) to the implications of vayakhel al. Yes, parshat Vayakhel begins with Vayakhel, but that is Moshe causing them to gather. But where do we see gathering upon, or against someone? Besides in this parsha, we have:
במדבר פרק טז
  • פסוק י"ט: וַיַּקְהֵל עֲלֵיהֶם קֹרַח אֶת-כָּל-הָעֵדָה, אֶל-פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד; וַיֵּרָא כְבוֹד-יְהוָה, אֶל-כָּל-הָעֵדָה.  {ס}

where some opposition and negative feeling may be implied. We have:
מלכים א פרק יב
  • פסוק כ"א: ויבאו (וַיָּבֹא) רְחַבְעָם, יְרוּשָׁלִַם, וַיַּקְהֵל אֶת-כָּל-בֵּית יְהוּדָה וְאֶת-שֵׁבֶט בִּנְיָמִן מֵאָה וּשְׁמֹנִים אֶלֶף בָּחוּר, עֹשֵׂה מִלְחָמָה--לְהִלָּחֵם, עִם-בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְהָשִׁיב אֶת-הַמְּלוּכָה, לִרְחַבְעָם בֶּן-שְׁלֹמֹה.  {פ}

This is gathering to wage war. We have them seizing Yirmeyahu to kill him:
ז וַיִּשְׁמְעוּ הַכֹּהֲנִים וְהַנְּבִאִים, וְכָל-הָעָם, אֶת-יִרְמְיָהוּ, מְדַבֵּר אֶת-הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה בְּבֵית יְהוָה.  ח וַיְהִי כְּכַלּוֹת יִרְמְיָהוּ, לְדַבֵּר אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר-צִוָּה יְהוָה, לְדַבֵּר, אֶל-כָּל-הָעָם; וַיִּתְפְּשׂוּ אֹתוֹ הַכֹּהֲנִים וְהַנְּבִיאִים, וְכָל-הָעָם לֵאמֹר--מוֹת תָּמוּת.  ט מַדּוּעַ נִבֵּיתָ בְשֵׁם-יְהוָה לֵאמֹר, כְּשִׁלוֹ יִהְיֶה הַבַּיִת הַזֶּה, וְהָעִיר הַזֹּאת תֶּחֱרַב, מֵאֵין יוֹשֵׁב; וַיִּקָּהֵל כָּל-הָעָם אֶל-יִרְמְיָהוּ, בְּבֵית יְהוָה

and another instance to wage war:
דברי הימים ב פרק יא
  • פסוק א: וַיָּבֹא רְחַבְעָם, יְרוּשָׁלִַם, וַיַּקְהֵל אֶת-בֵּית יְהוּדָה וּבִנְיָמִן מֵאָה וּשְׁמוֹנִים אֶלֶף בָּחוּר, עֹשֵׂה מִלְחָמָה--לְהִלָּחֵם, עִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְהָשִׁיב אֶת-הַמַּמְלָכָה, לִרְחַבְעָם.  {פ}

There are a couple more that don't carry these implication, but vayakhel al does seem to carry the implications. And that sets the stage.

The midrash also mentions nityarei, so indeed, the see/fear switchoff is a strong possibility.

Midrash does not always whitewash characters. It does seem to be the case that where there is grey, the midrash will color it either black or white, depending on the overall picture of the character. But at the same time, the midrash picks up on what is ambiguous, and picks up minor textual cues and brings theme to the fore.

We should consider whether Aharon really was an actor in all these proceedings. The pesukim in question, from Ki Sisa:

א  וַיַּרְא הָעָם, כִּי-בֹשֵׁשׁ מֹשֶׁה לָרֶדֶת מִן-הָהָר; וַיִּקָּהֵל הָעָם עַל-אַהֲרֹן, וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו קוּם עֲשֵׂה-לָנוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר יֵלְכוּ לְפָנֵינוּ--כִּי-זֶה מֹשֶׁה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לֹא יָדַעְנוּ מֶה-הָיָה לוֹ.1 And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him: 'Up, make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him.'
ב  וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, אַהֲרֹן, פָּרְקוּ נִזְמֵי הַזָּהָב, אֲשֶׁר בְּאָזְנֵי נְשֵׁיכֶם בְּנֵיכֶם וּבְנֹתֵיכֶם; וְהָבִיאוּ, אֵלָי.2 And Aaron said unto them: 'Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me.'
ג  וַיִּתְפָּרְקוּ, כָּל-הָעָם, אֶת-נִזְמֵי הַזָּהָב, אֲשֶׁר בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם; וַיָּבִיאוּ, אֶל-אַהֲרֹן.3 And all the people broke off the golden rings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron.
ד  וַיִּקַּח מִיָּדָם, וַיָּצַר אֹתוֹ בַּחֶרֶט, וַיַּעֲשֵׂהוּ, עֵגֶל מַסֵּכָה; וַיֹּאמְרוּ--אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.4 And he received it at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made it a molten calf; and they said: 'This is thy god, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.'
ה  וַיַּרְא אַהֲרֹן, וַיִּבֶן מִזְבֵּחַ לְפָנָיו; וַיִּקְרָא אַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמַר, חַג לַיהוָה מָחָר.5 And when Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation, and said: 'To-morrow shall be a feast to the LORD.'
ו  וַיַּשְׁכִּימוּ, מִמָּחֳרָת, וַיַּעֲלוּ עֹלֹת, וַיַּגִּשׁוּ שְׁלָמִים; וַיֵּשֶׁב הָעָם לֶאֱכֹל וְשָׁתוֹ, וַיָּקֻמוּ לְצַחֵק.  {פ}6 And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt-offerings, and brought peace-offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to make merry. {P}
In pasuk 1, it is the people who initiate it. They have the idea to make an idol. He tells them to take a certain action. (The midrash understands this as a delaying tactic.) They do so and he accedes to their request. Then, the people respond with eileh elohecha yisrael. And only after that does he build an altar, make a proclamation, etcetera.

It does not really make sense that he would do this because he saw the golden calf. He had constructed this calf himself, and so why would he react to seeing the calf. Further, why interject with the people's designating it. Further, I would have expected the transitive וירא, with a definite article, if he saw an object. Rather, he perceived the situation. And that is why, for peshat reasons, the JPS translation (above) says that he saw this, not that he saw it. (This is the point I expanded upon in a comment at DovBear.)

Aharon is certainly not a leader here. But he seems to be reacting to the nation. And we see from many other instances that the people are ready to challenge and storm Moshe and Aharon, such that they were even afraid of being stoned. Here, this was a reaction to Moshe's delay, a disappointment, and we see how the people got in cases of disappointment. It may well be that Aharon felt threatened or intimidated by all this.

Indeed, a bit later in the same perek, Moshe asks Aharon why he did this, and Aharon answered that it is the people's fault, and that he merely went along.

כא  וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-אַהֲרֹן, מֶה-עָשָׂה לְךָ הָעָם הַזֶּה:  כִּי-הֵבֵאתָ עָלָיו, חֲטָאָה גְדֹלָה.21 And Moses said unto Aaron: 'What did this people unto thee, that thou hast brought a great sin upon them?'
כב  וַיֹּאמֶר אַהֲרֹן, אַל-יִחַר אַף אֲדֹנִי; אַתָּה יָדַעְתָּ אֶת-הָעָם, כִּי בְרָע הוּא.22 And Aaron said: 'Let not the anger of my lord wax hot; thou knowest the people, that they are set on evil.
כג  וַיֹּאמְרוּ לִי--עֲשֵׂה-לָנוּ אֱלֹהִים, אֲשֶׁר יֵלְכוּ לְפָנֵינוּ:  כִּי-זֶה מֹשֶׁה הָאִישׁ, אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם--לֹא יָדַעְנוּ, מֶה-הָיָה לוֹ.23 So they said unto me: Make us a god, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him.
כד  וָאֹמַר לָהֶם לְמִי זָהָב, הִתְפָּרָקוּ וַיִּתְּנוּ-לִי; וָאַשְׁלִכֵהוּ בָאֵשׁ, וַיֵּצֵא הָעֵגֶל הַזֶּה.24 And I said unto them: Whosoever hath any gold, let them break it off; so they gave it me; and I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf.'
כה  וַיַּרְא מֹשֶׁה אֶת-הָעָם, כִּי פָרֻעַ הוּא:  כִּי-פְרָעֹה אַהֲרֹן, לְשִׁמְצָה בְּקָמֵיהֶם.25 And when Moses saw that the people were broken loose--for Aaron had let them loose for a derision among their enemies--

Thus, in the very same perek, we get Aharon's defense. And that defense includes אַתָּה יָדַעְתָּ אֶת-הָעָם, כִּי בְרָע הוּא. You know how these people can get, and how they are set on evil. And so, it does indeed seem that Aharon was intimidated. This would be a failure of leadership, on a peshat level.

I think the midrash about the killing of Chur picks up on the disappointment of boshesh Moshe, on the vayakhel al Aharon, on his going along for the ride but that the people are the instigators and drivers, and finally, on Aharon's somewhat explicit explanation. The midrash makes it concrete, by having an actual person killed, and thus making it a very real and tangible death threat. And the other interpreter, that he saw an angry mob, is also highlighting this (together with that vayakhel aspect).

This is a way of midrash in general. As the Biblical text stands, these nuances do not stand out. But the midrash takes these nuances and makes them starker, and unambiguous. In this way, we get a clear reading of one possible interpretation of the text.

While quickly researching this, I noticed that while the text local to parashas Ki Sisa does not contain a great condemnation of Aharon, in the Samaritan Torah, we have a transferred statement that Hashem is furious with Aharon:

This is the regular harmonizing tendency of the Samaritan Torah.

This interjection is lifted from Devarim 9, in Moshe's speech and summary of the incident:

19. For I was frightened of the wrath and the fury that the Lord was angry with you to destroy you, and the Lord hearkened to me also at that time.יט. כִּי יָגֹרְתִּי מִפְּנֵי הָאַף וְהַחֵמָה אֲשֶׁר קָצַף יְ־הֹוָ־ה עֲלֵיכֶם לְהַשְׁמִיד אֶתְכֶם וַיִּשְׁמַע יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֵלַי גַּם בַּפַּעַם הַהִוא:
20. And with Aaron, the Lord was very furious, to destroy him; so I prayed also for Aaron at that time.כ. וּבְאַהֲרֹן הִתְאַנַּף יְ־הֹוָ־ה מְאֹד לְהַשְׁמִידוֹ וָאֶתְפַּלֵּל גַּם בְּעַד אַהֲרֹן בָּעֵת הַהִוא:

According to this, Aharon was also in danger from Hashem's wrath. Apparently, he did something very wrong. But there are two ways of learning peshat. One is each sefer, and parasha, on its own, to achieve the  best local peshat, and the other is to harmonize and/or learn from the implications of various places in order to obtain an optimal global peshat. Both methods have their value, I think.

Rashi elaborates, in parashat Ekev, there:

And with Aaron, the Lord was very furious: Because he listened to you.ובאהרן התאנף ה': לפי ששמע לכם:
to destroy him: This refers to the destruction of [his] children. Similarly, it states, “And I destroyed his fruit [i.e., children] from above” (Amos 2:9). - [Pesikta Rabbathi, Acharei Moth]להשמידו: זה כלוי בנים. וכן הוא אומר (עמוס ב, ט) ואשמיד פריו ממעל:
so I prayed also for Aaron: And my prayer succeeded to atone for half, thus [only] two [of his sons] died, and two remained [alive].ואתפלל גם בעד אהרן: והועילה תפלתי לכפר מחצה, ומתו שנים ונשארו השנים:

That is, yes, Hashem was furious with him. But that should not be taken to imply an extremely proactive role. He reacted; he listened to you.

I am not convinced that this is Rashi unable to contemplate the idea of Aharon sinning of his own volition. Rather, it quite plausibly is Rashi reacting to the implications of several Biblical verses in parashat Ki Sisa.


E-Man said...

It seems to me that pashut pshat in no way infers that Aharon did this out of his own volition. That is actually absurd and ridiculous. Clearly it was a reaction to the nation. They approached him and then he tried to make the best of a bad situation.

Personally, I think that Aharon was trying to focus the nation towards serving G-D, but he was over ambitious. He bit off a little more than he could chew and hence he ended up just aiding the sinners instead of steering them back towards G-D.

joshwaxman said...

i agree, that the reaction interpretation does seem to be the obvious peshat.

Hillel said...

R' Waxman.
You seem to conflate the terms vayakhel and vayikahel, but I believe the distinction actually supports your point - vayakhel meaning an orderly, well-organized coalition, and vayikahel (especially vayikahel 'al' as opposed to 'el') meaning a disorderly, violent mob. R' Avraham Walfish has a piece on this on the VBM.

[Using the term vayakhel by Korach is, I believe, intended to be blood-curdling. Korach's men (as opposed to Datan and Aviram's followers) were not common folk whose passions were inflamed by a demagogue; this was an organized group of communal leaders who had long contemplated their position.]

In fairness to DovBear, however, I think you may be taking his post a little too literally. I think it's a fair point that thge medrashim and meforashim go out of their way to transfer Aharon from someone who responded to the people's request for leadership by building a golden calf (of his own violition, no one forced him to do that - the people just forced him to do something) to someone who was under extraordinary duress, literally fearing for his life, building the calf rather than face the same fate as Chur.

That being said, perhaps the strongest proof for the medrashic position comes not from ambiguity in the text, but from the simple fact that while thousands of Jews died for this sin, Aharon is not punished at all! Some justification must be found for this incongruity, and duress seems to fit the bill.

All this leads to my question to you - why is Aharon never punished? Even facing the wrath of the people, it seems clear from Moshe's reaction here and in Eikev that Aharon did wrong - so even if he doesn't deserve death for his sin, why is there no punishment at all mentioned? Is he simply a beneficiary of some kind of divine grace? (That doesn't sound like a very Jewish concept, but how else to explain how Aharon eludes punishment here and in the incident of Moshe's "isha kushite" where Miriam and Aharon apparently commit the exact same act, but only Miriam is punished?)


joshwaxman said...

oops! yes, i did conflate them, though the point stands; and the midrash does seem to be making much of that word.

i don't know that I was taking DovBear too literally. perhaps. stated more neutrally, it would have indeed been a post i might have made, about the midrash changing grey to black and grey to white, depending on context.

in terms of aharon never being punished, i think i recall certain rishonim (ibn ezra, maybe?) using this as evidence.

why wasn't he punished, even if it was merely a lack of leadership? beats me. shaul was removed from his position for similarly giving way, but then, aharon never really permanently had a leadership position. we do have devarim 9, that says that it was a result of Moshe's praying. as to the midrash, that nadav and avihu was punishment for this, well, you can make of it what you will.



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