To see the true integrity and character of a person, examine his reaction when faced by opposing masses.
In parashat Ki Tisa, we see a glimpse of Aaron’s character when the Israelites decide to build a golden calf after Moses’ delayed return from Mount Sinai.
Exodus 32:1-2 relays:
When the people saw that Moses was late in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron, and they said to him: “Come on! Make us gods that will go before us, because this man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt we don’t know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Remove the golden earrings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters and bring them [those earrings] to me.”
What?! Aaron was a firsthand witness to the wondrous works of God in Egypt, yet when faced with a concerned mob of Israelites he immediately appeases their wishes, even ordering the men to remove gold from the women to mold into an idol. Commentators throughout time have tried to make sense of Aaron’s leadership and unexpected actions in the absence of his brother, Moses.
Rashi defends Aaron by explaining that Aaron commands the men to take gold from the women, knowing that the women would refuse and waste time arguing. Therefore, Aaron’s instructions were meant to serve as a stalling tactic while avoiding direct confrontation with the Israelites.
Other interpreters specifically blame Aaron for the sin of creating the golden calf because he could not effectively assuage the fears of the Israelites when Moses was away. He also actively participated in the idolatrous sin. Midrash Exodus Rabbah relates a story in which Hur, one of Moses’ loyal assistants, is murdered by the Israelites for defending Moses and his delayed absence. The Midrash goes on to explain that Aaron gives in to the demands of the masses because he fears losing his life.
Throughout history, Jewish individuals have faced a number of intimidating situations or have been a minority view among masses. Rabbi Akiva was burnt at the stake for studying Torah despite strict prohibitions against it. Abraham Joshua Heschel was among a small number of white men to walk alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and stand up to civil injustices. These leaders, among several others, risked their lives and reputations to protect their beliefs and integrity.
Was Aaron a calculating leader or an unfaithful coward? Depending on how you read the Torah and its numerous commentaries, your understandings may vary. While we cannot place final judgment on Aaron or others, we do have the ability to make ultimate judgments upon ourselves.