Although our parasha, Ki Tisa, contains numerous themes, it is preeminently associated with the Chet Haegel (the Sin of the Golden Calf). How could our ancestors could have participated in such a heinous activity?
While the people’s actions are difficult to understand, Aaron’s actions were in some ways incomprehensible, with a straightforward reading of the text appearing to place him directly at the center of the sin.
What did Aaron actually do?
•He told the nation to donate gold and bring it to him.
•He collected a great deal of gold from many of the people.
•He had someone mold the gold into the form of a calf.
•He built an altar in front of the Golden Calf.
•He announced that there would be a festival to G-d the next day.
This certainly is not the behavior that we would have imagined from one of our greatest spiritual leaders, the first Kohen Gadol. We would hardly have expected him to accede to the people’s wishes — let alone, seemingly, encourage them!
Beyond question, Aaron sinned. Therefore, the Midrash Tanchuma to Parashat Shemini asks why does the Torah state, “Take for yourself a bull-calf [as your sin offering]?” Why does it not say a par (mature bull)? This comes to teach us that through [the golden] calf, the priesthood was nearly wrested from your hands (elah al yedei aegel nitfakfak hakahunah b’yadecha), and via [this] calf the priesthood is firmly established in your hands (u’b’aegel mitbasusah b’yadecha).
Rashi, basing himself upon this Midrash, notes that the phrase “take for yourself a bull-calf [was] to inform [Aaron] that [G-d] had granted him atonement through this calf for the incident involving the [golden] calf.”
The theme of Aaron’s sin, and consequent recognition of guilt, is presented in the halachic Midrash to sefer Vayikra known as the Sifra (9:16). Rashi paraphrases this source in his commentary on Vayikra 9:23: “When Aaron saw that all the sacrifices had been offered and all the procedures had been performed, and yet the Shechinah had not descended for Israel, he was distressed. He said, ‘I know that the Holy One, blessed is He, is angry with me [because of my role in the Sin of the Golden Calf], and on my account the Shechinah has not descended for Israel.’ So he said to Moses, ‘My brother Moses, is this what you have done to me that I have entered and been put to shame?’ At once, Moses entered [the Tent of Meeting] with him, and they prayed for mercy. Then the Shechinah came down for Israel.”
Almost all of the classic meforshim agree that Aaron did something fundamentally wrong, where they disagree is in their interpretations of his actions.
Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz, known as the Kli Yakar after the title of his most famous and beloved work, begins his commentary to Vayikra 9:2 by noting that there are those who ask why, on the day of the establishment of the Mishkan, Aaron brought the bull-calf as his sin offering, whereas the Jewish people brought their bull-calf as an olah (totally burnt offering, see Vayikra 9:3).
He notes that there was a fundamental difference in how Aaron sinned, in contrast to the nation’s sin. He suggests that Aaron’s sin was one of action (kum v’aseh), rather than one of thought (machshavah):
“This is the case since Aaron certainly had absolutely no intention of idol worship (avodah zarah)” — instead, the essence of his sin consisted of his action in actively creating the Golden Calf. As the Torah states: “Then the L-rd struck the people with a plague, because they had made the calf that Aaron had made” (Shemot 32:35). Why does the Torah emphasize “the calf that Aaron had made?”
This comes to teach us that Aaron’s only sin consisted in creating the Calf, rather than in any thought-based (machshavah) activity. This is why Aaron brought his bull-calf as a sin offering to bring about atonement for his action-based sin, whereas the Jewish people who sinned in both action and thought — since beyond question they intended to perform idol worship — brought their bull-calf as an olah as expiation for their additional thought-based sin.
According to the Kli Yakar, Aaron’s violation was a sin of commission, of action, rather than one of thought. His mind remained pure from any thought or intention of idol worship. Yet, although his actions lacked a thought component, Aaron’s feelings of guilt were appropriate and representative of the gulf between G-d and himself that he had caused.
Therefore he declared to Moshe, “I know that the Holy One, blessed is He, is angry with me [because of my role in the Sin of the Golden Calf], and on my account the Shechinah has not descended for Israel.” In order to remove the yawning chasm that separated Hashem from Aaron — and by extension, Hashem from the Jewish people — “Moses entered [the Tent of Meeting] with him, and they prayed for mercy. Then the Shechinah came down for Israel.” Moshe and Aaron prayed together to end the separation that had prevented the Divine Presence from dwelling amongst the Jewish people. By joining forces in prayer, they were able to close the gap that had separated Klal Yisrael from their Creator.
We live in an age of Jewish fragmentation. There are seemingly impenetrable walls between Torah observant and not yet Torah observant Jews. Moreover, the Orthodox Jewish world itself is filled with often-warring factions, mistrust, and lack of respect for differing authentic halachic opinions.
Chazal identified such sinat chinam (baseless hatred) as the reason for the destruction of the second Beit Hamikdash (Talmud Bavli, Yoma 9a). This is a grievous sin, and we must not shy away from labeling it as such. Here, as well, we must emulate Moshe and Aaron; and join in prayer and as one united people. If we can do this, if we can close the breaches that separate and alienate us from one another, then we will be able to remove the distance that exists between Hashem and our nation.
With the Almighty’s mercy and our heart-felt desire, may the time come soon when we will join together in prayer and proclaim as one, “The Schechinah has come down for Israel.” V’chane yihi ratzon.