In this week's portion, Ekev, Moses continues his farewell address to the people of Israel. He begins by describing the blessings that will accrue if the people observe God's laws (fertility, health, military dominance) and the miraculous means by which God will allow them to conquer the land of Israel. Moses exhorts them to remember the lessons of the wilderness, that God is the source of their good fortune, so they do not mistakenly conclude that "My strength and the power of my hands have created this wealth for me" (Deuteronomy 8:17). Moses chides the Israelites for their prior rebellions against God, reminding them of the sin of the Golden Calf and of the spies. The portion concludes with further adjurations to keep God's laws and so merit continued residence in the Land of Israel. In the course of his admonishments, Moses retells in detail the sin of the Golden Calf. Most of the story is familiar from Exodus 32. Moses describes how, while he was on the mountaintop receiving the Tablets of the Law, God told him to descend because the people had sinned. Moses relates how he prayed for forgiveness for the people and then shattered the tablets himself upon personally witnessing the people's decay. One fascinating new fact is added to the Deuteronomy account of the sin. Moses explains, "And at Aaron, God was very angry to have destroyed him, and I also prayed on Aaron's behalf at this time" (Deuteronomy 9:20). This verse reopens the question of Aaron's participation in the sin.
In Exodus 32, Aaron seems to play a central role in the sin. The chapter begins with the people approaching Aaron to request an elohim--a God--since they do not know what has become of Moses. Aaron requests that the people collect gold from the women and children. The people deliver up their own gold ornaments, at which point Aaron collects them, crafts them into a molten calf, and a plurality of voices declare the calf to be the god who took the Israelites out of Egypt. Aaron builds an altar before it and declares, "Tomorrow will be a holiday for the Lord" (Exodus 32:5).
Aaron's role in the sin has been variously interpreted by traditional commentaries. Despite the fact that a plain reading of the text would seem to indict Aaron, I was not able to find any traditional commentaries that called Aaron to task for committing the sin of idolatry. Instead, the approaches tended to fall into three categories:
Category 1: Aaron did not really sin; he was just trying to stall the people until Moses' return, and sadly Aaron's best efforts were foiled. This approach is most famously taken up by Rashi, the famous medieval exegete, who explains away each of Aaron's actions as a delaying tactic. According to Rashi, Aaron specifically requests the gold of the women and children whom he hoped would fight to keep their jewelry, a fight that would buy time and allow Moses to return in the interim. Aaron builds the altar himself because that would take longer than if everyone helped, and he says "Tomorrow will be a holiday for the Lord" because he really believes that by the next day, Moses will have returned and the people will worship God. Unfortunately, the people in their zealousness donate their own gold, Moses does not return soon enough, and contrary to Aaron's wishes, the people begin to worship the Golden Calf.
Category 2: Aaron did actually sin, but the sin was something small, certainly nothing as bad as idolatry. Ibn Ezra, another commentator, explains that neither Aaron nor the people intended to build an idol. They were simply seeking to construct a physical representation of God's presence. Some individuals became confused and thought that the calf was a god itself, and Aaron's sin was that he acted in a way that caused these souls to be misled. The exegete Seforno locates Aaron's sin in his declaration, "Tomorrow will be a holiday for the Lord." This caused the people to dance exultantly around the calf, behavior that in Seforno's eyes was the worst aspect of the incident. A Midrash explains that Aaron's sin was that he told the people that the calf was not a god. According to the Midrash, Moses berates Aaron for causing the people to become willful sinners instead of unknowing transgressors. Category 2 is seeking to respond to our verse--Deuteronomy 9:20--about God's anger toward Aaron. Clearly, if God is incensed enough to destroy Aaron, he must have done something wrong, but still this approach is not willing to charge Aaron with idolatry.