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.
Category 3: Not only did Aaron not sin at all, but his actions in this story are so wonderful that Aaron becomes the High Priest as a reward for them.
A Midrash explains this approach best by way of a parable: A king's son became overly arrogant and sought to stab his father. His tutor said to him, "Do not tire yourself out. Give me the sword, and I will stab him." The king understands that the tutor loves the prince so much that he would rather accept the guilt than have it stain the son. The king then rewards the tutor handsomely. So, too, Aaron loves the Israelites so much that when he sees them determined to sin, he opts to shoulder the guilt himself and thus protect the people. God understands this and rewards Aaron by making him the High Priest.
None of these approaches actually condemns Aaron for committing idolatry. The reasons for this omission go beyond a simplistic attempt to whitewash biblical heroes. Other aspects of the story exert pressure on the exegetes to exonerate Aaron. If Aaron had really played a leading role in the sin, why was he not punished? The other offenders meet up with swift justice, but we have no record of Aaron repenting or even confessing to a sin. Surely if God were to forgive a sin of idolatry, confession and repentance would be prerequisites.
More important, we learn later that the first-born sons lose out on their rights to the priesthood because of their participation in the Golden Calf. Instead, the tribe of Levi earns the right to serve in the Temple because Levites took the initiative to punish the idolaters. It is difficult to explain how the first-borns lose out on the priesthood because of the Golden Calf, while Aaron, creator and originator of the calf, became the High Priest. (Although a student of mine once noted that at least we see from this incident that Aaron has a knack for cultic worship.) It is these factors that compel the exegetes to soften their readings of Aaron's actions and create the image of Aaron as lover of the people and of peace that exists to this day.
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.