Aharon was the first Kohen Gadol, and one of the greatest people in the history of our nation. Yet, as King Solomon taught us long ago, “There is no righteous man on earth who does good and sins not.” Unfortunately, this verse rings true in Aharon’s case as well, especially regarding his involvement in the creation of the Golden Calf. What could have caused him to fall to this level?
At first glance, it seems that he was motivated by fear. Sanhedrin 7a relates that Aharon’s nephew, Chur, was murdered for refusing to participate: “He saw Chur lying slain before him and said: If I do not obey, they will do unto me as they did unto Chur, and so will be fulfilled the prophet, ‘Shall the priest and the prophet be slain in the Sanctuary of G-d?’”
But even fear of death would not be sufficient cause to engage in avodah zarah, since, as the Ramban notes, “one should be willing to die rather than violate” this command. Why, then, did Aharon choose to play a role in the construction of the Eigel Hazahav?
A convincing answer is found at the end of our Talmudic passage: “Shall the priest [i.e. Aharon] and the prophet be slain in the Sanctuary of G-d?” [If so,] they [the Jewish people] will never find forgiveness. Better let them worship the Golden Calf, for which they may yet find forgiveness through repentance.”
In short, in a poignant act of self-sacrifice, Aharon compromised himself and his reward in the world to come in order to prevent permanent damage to the Jewish People. What was his motivation? In my estimation, he did this because of his unlimited love for the Jewish people, and his desire to bring about peace and love between them.
This idea is found in Rashi’s commentary on a verse in this week’s parsha: “The whole congregation saw that Aaron had expired, and the entire house of Israel wept for Aaron for thirty days” (Bamidbar 20:29). Rashi opines: “The entire house of Israel [refers to both] the men and the women, for Aaron had pursued peace; he promoted love between disputing parties and between man and wife.”
Rashi’s comment is based upon a fascinating passage in Midrash Aggadah, underscoring the most prominent aspects of Aharon’s personality and the unparalleled manner in which the Jewish people perceived him:
“And the entire house of Israel wept for Aaron for thirty days — that which was said regarding Aharon was greater than that which was said in regards to Moshe. [In Moshe’s case the Torah states: “And the sons of Israel wept for Moshe in the plains of Moav for thirty days — only the men, whereas in Aharon’s case the text states, “the entire house of Israel,” which included both men and women.]”
We are immediately taken aback by the difference between the people’s reaction at the passing of Aharon and that of Moshe. In Aharon’s case, all of the Jewish people cried for thirty days upon his death, whereas in regards to Moshe, only the men cried for this period of time.
This is difficult to understand. It seems that Moshe should have received the greater emotional response. As Hashem’s messenger, he led the people out of Egypt, helped them cross the Sea of Reeds, brought them to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai, and continuously taught them the Torah!
Our Midrash explains: “This [reaction] took place because Aharon pursued peace, loved peace, and brought about harmony between a man and his wife and between a woman and her friend. As the text states: ‘In peace and righteousness he went with Me, and he brought back many from iniquity (Malachi 2:6).’
“When Aharon heard that two men, or a husband and his wife, were in the midst of a dispute, he would walk toward one of them and say to him: ‘Your friend has come to me, and he is totally upset that he has angered you. Moreover, he/she beseeched me to come to you to seek permission for him to approach, so that you may forgive him.’ In addition, Aharon would not leave the aggrieved individual until he had effectively removed all hatred from his heart. In this way, he would set the stage for peace between them, and only then go on his way.”
Aharon emerges as the people’s counselor and advocate, driven by his everlasting dedication to shalom:
“When one of the injured parties would encounter their friend, following their session with Aharon, they would embrace one another. So too was his approach when he heard about a fight between a man and his wife — he would not take leave from them until they achieved reconciliation. Therefore, both the men and the women cried for Aharon upon his passing.”
We live in a fractious world of unending dissension. It appears that Aharon’s approach is desperately needed to help heal the endless discord that impacts us all.
As Hillel taught us so long ago: “Be of the students of Aharon — loving peace, pursuing peace, loving your fellow beings and bringing them close to the Torah” (Pirkei Avot 1:12). May these words be realized soon, with Hashem’s help, and may we, too, be counted among the students of Aharon.