Friday, August 10, 2012

Eikev - The Sin of Aaron

In Parshas Eikev, Moses recounts his dialogue with God in the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf and his efforts to intercede on the behalf of the Jewish people. In the course of his account, Moses mentions that God was angry not just with the Jewish people as a whole, but also with Aaron the priest (Deuteronomy 9:20), "And with Aaron God became very angry to destroy him, and I prayed for Aaron as well at that time."

This appears to be a clear statement that Aaron sinned in his actions at the time of the sin of the golden calf (as told in Exodus 32). However, this needs clarification because in Exodus there is no clear indication that God condemned Aaron's actions, and the Sages generally understand Aaron's apparent concessions at that time as an attempt to restrain and limit the sinful actions of the people who were demanding that Aaron construct a "god" for them to replace Moses.

These questions are raised by Rabbeinu Bachya (d.1340) in his commentary on this verse. He answers that God is judging Aaron is being judged according to a very high standard:
והתשובה בזה כי הקב"ה מדקדק עם הצדיקים אפילו כחוט השערה... ואע"פ שכוונתו היתה לשמים, מכל מקום המעשה לאהרן בידים היה חילול השם, ואע"פ שהוא לא חטא בו הנה החטיא את ישראל שלא בכוונה
The answer to this question is that God is demanding with the righteous to a hair's-breadth... and therefore, even though [Aaron's] intent was for the sake of Heaven, nevertheless Aaron's physical act was a desecration of the name of God, and while [Aaron] himself did not sin with [the calf], he unintentionally caused the Jewish people to sin.
So we find that Aaron is both praised and condemned for his actions at the time of the sin of the golden calf, and his actions are interpreted as both righteous and sinful. This dual perspective is reflected in the debate found in the commentaries on a somewhat vague passage in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 6b-7a). The Talmud is discussing the issue of a judge arbitrating a compromise:
רבי אליעזר בנו של רבי יוסי הגלילי אומר: אסור לבצוע, וכל הבוצע ־ הרי זה חוטא, וכל המברך את הבוצע ־ הרי זה מנאץ, ועל זה נאמר, "בצע ברך נאץ ה'"ץ אלא יקוב הדין את ההר, שנאמר, "כי המשפט לאלהים הוא", וכן משה היה אומר יקוב הדין את ההר. אבל אהרן אוהב שלום ורודף שלום, ומשים שלום בין אדם לחבירו, שנאמר, "תורת אמת היתה בפיהו ועולה לא נמצא בשפתיו בשלום ובמישור הלך אתי ורבים השיב מעון."
Rabbi Eliezer the son of R' Yosi HaGalili says: It is forbidden [for a judge] to compromise, and he who compromises sins, and anyone who blesses a compromiser blasphemes, for on this it is said (Psalms 10:3), "He who blesses a compromiser blasphemes against God."  Rather, let the law puncture through the mountain, as it says (Deuteronomy 1:17), "For the judgment is God's." And so Moses would say: "Let the law puncture through the mountain." But Aaron [who was not a judge, but a private citizen] loved peace and pursued peace and made peace between man and his fellow, as it says (Malachi 2:6), "The law of truth was in his mouth, injustice was not found in his lips, he walked with Me in peace and equity and he turned many away from sin."
While the exact ramifications of this discussion in legal terms is beyond the scope of this discussion, we find in this passage that while the Talmud condemns the encouragement of compromise by a sitting judge, it praises the pursuit of compromise outside the courtroom, as exemplified by Aaron. The Talmud continues discussing the propriety of compromise in a court setting and then concludes:
אמר רבי תנחום בר חנילאי: לא נאמר מקרא זה אלא כנגד מעשה העגל, שנאמר, "וירא אהרן ויבן מזבח לפניו." מה ראה? אמר רבי בנימין בר יפת אמר רבי אלעזר: ראה חור שזבוח לפניו, אמר: אי לא שמענא להו השתא עבדו לי כדעבדו בחור, ומיקיים בי "אם יהרג במקדש ה' כהן ונביא", ולא הויא להו תקנתא לעולם. מוטב דליעבדו לעגל, אפשר הויא להו תקנתא בתשובה.
R' Tanchum bar Chanilai said: This verse was said only with regard to the story of the [golden] calf, as it says (Exodus 32:5), "And Aaron saw and he built an altar before it."  What did he see? — R' Binyamin bar Yaphes said in the name of R' Elazar: He saw that Chur was slaughtered before him. [Aaron] said, If I do not listen to them, they will now do to me as they did to Chur, and through me (i.e. my death) will be fulfilled [the verse] (Lamentations 2:20), "if a priest and a prophet will be killed in the Sanctuary of God" and there will be no rectification for them forever! It is better that they serve the calf, for which a rectification through repentance is possible.
Here we find an explanation of why Aaron decided it was better to cooperate with the sin of the golden calf rather than directly oppose it. However, there is a significant ambiguity in the discussion. When R' Tanchum bar Chanilai says, "this verse", what verse is he actually referring to?

Rashi understands R' Tanchum bar Chanilai to be referring to the verse from Psalms cited in the earlier passage, "He who blesses a compromiser blasphemes against God." According to Rashi, R' Tanchum bar Chanilai is criticizing Aaron's action, saying that, while Aaron certainly had good intentions, he ultimately engaged in an illicit compromise.

Tosafos, however, understands R' Tanchum bar Chanilai to be referring to the verse from Malachi cited earlier with regards to Aaron, "The law of truth was in his mouth, injustice was not found in his lips, he walked with Me in peace and equity and he turned many away from sin." According to Tosafos, R' Tanchum bar Chanilai is actually defending, and even praising, Aaron, saying that through his actions at the time of the sin of the golden calf "he turned many away from sin."

It appears that Tosafos' understanding is generally accepted as the dominant opinion in this debate. This may be because it reflects a sentiment found in many other midrashic sources that discuss Aaron's role in the sin of the golden calf. For example, the medrash (Vayikra Rabba 10:3) states that is what because of his actions at the time of the sin of the golden calf, and his willingness to shift the burden of guilt from the Jewish people to himself, that Aaron was chosen to be the first, and ancestor of, the kohanim (priests).

How then, however, are we to understand the clear condemnation of Aaron's actions here in Parshas Eikev?

One possible answer is given by the Taz (R' Dovid HaLevi, d.1667) in his commentary on Rashi on this verse (בספרו דברי דוד), who suggests that perhaps the sin of Aaron was that, although his primary motivation was certainly for the sake of Heaven, because of his fear for his life, Aaron failed to pray for God to inspire the sinners to turn away from their sinful actions.

However, it would seem that the primary answer is more basic, and is found in the commentary of Rabbeinu Bachya that we quoted at the beginning of this discussion. It is certainly true that Aaron had good intentions, and that, in the big picture, his act was not truly a sin at all but an act of righteousness and self-sacrifice which, ultimately, saved many people from sin. Nevertheless, when all is said and done, there remains an inescapable element of chillul Hashem (desecration of God's name) in the fact that Aaron, one of the most righteous men of all time, not only failed to openly oppose the worshipers of the golden calf, but was actually the one who made the calf for them!

Just as justice required that God recognize and reward Aaron's good intentions, it also demanded that Aaron atone for the element of chillul Hashem in his actions. As we know, chillul Hashem is considered one of the worst possible sins. Chazal tell us that, unlike other sins, one is held liable for an unintentional chillul Hashem in a manner similar to an intentional sin (Avos 4:4) and that even repentance, Yom Kippur, and suffering cannot atone for the sin of chillul Hashem and full atonement for chillul Hashem can only be achieved through death (Yoma 86a).

For a person who had reached the heights of perfection that Aaron had achieved, this flaw was all the more glaring and significant. Thus, there is no real contradiction between the various sources that praise Aaron for his actions and those that condemn his actions.

No comments: