Aaron the Accommodator
The repetition of Parshiyot Terumah and Tetzaveh in VaYakhel and Pekudei, at the end of Exodus, is nothing short of remarkable. Every piece of furniture, every priestly vestment, and every instruction regarding the dimensions and the materials used in the construction of the Tabernacle is repeated. This ten-chapter demonstration of divine command and human compliance emphasizes beyond any doubt that Moses followed God’s command to the letter.
The most common expression in Pekudei is “as God had commanded Moses.” In Priestly writing, meticulous observance without any independent initiative is the hallmark of righteousness. Independent initiatives are frowned upon, or more accurately stamped out, as Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu found out in Leviticus 10 when they attempted to offer incense without proper instruction. By this measure (obedience) Moses was the most righteous individual in the Torah, but he does have some competition.
Given that most of the details concerning the construction of the Tabernacle were already given, and discussed in previous divrei Torah on this site, I will focus on Aaron, the second most important figure in the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy, and the other hero of the P document.
Aaron the Enigma
Aaron is an enigma; it is hard to say anything substantive about his character since he almost never speaks up or does anything on his own. When Moses commands him to do something, he does it. When God commands him to do something, he does it. Even when the Israelites command him to build them a new god in Exodus 32 (i.e. the golden calf), he does so. A science fiction fan would suspect that Aaron is being portrayed as a robot, hardwired to follow all directives, without a personality of his own. As I mentioned above though, according to the Priestly stratum of the Torah, compliance and submissiveness vis-à-vis those above you in the hierarchy constitute ideal human behavior. For Aaron that means Moses and God. Aaron is thus portrayed as an exemplar of priestly compliance, obedient to the very core of his being. Is this his main or only image in the Torah? And how does this portrayal fit with the rabbinic depiction of Aaron, as the ultimate peace-maker?
Describing Aaron as a model of compliance, as God’s robot, works most, but not all of the time. Two passages stand out: The first is when Aaron builds a golden calf for the Israelites in Exodus 32. On the one hand, he did what the people commanded him, on the other hand he facilitated their disobedience, namely transgressing the Decalogue commandments against building and worshipping gods of gold. Not only did he build them the idol, he told them to celebrate its construction! (32:5) This act of obedience to the people is simultaneously an act of rebellion against God. 
Another time Aaron speaks out is in Leviticus 10, after the death of Nadav and Avihu, where Moses rebukes their brothers, Elazar and Itamar for burning a sacrifice that they were supposed to eat (in a holy place). There Aaron patiently explains that he was following his own sense of what was proper in a time of emergency. Then he asks Moses if God is happy with his behavior and Moses answers in the affirmative.
Aaron the Accommodator
These two interactions suggest that not only is Aaron a compliant personality he is an accommodating one; – he wants everyone to be happy. Like Tevye the milkman says when people around him are arguing, “You’re right, and you are also right,” even though it is impossible for both sides to be right at the same time. In the episodes of the Golden Calf as well as in the episode of Miriam’s complaint (Numbers 12) and Moses’ hitting of the rock (Num. 20), this desire overwhelms his good sense and he follows them into sin.
Despite the downside of being an accommodating person, there is much to be admired as well. When his sons die, Aaron wants God to be happy so he burns an offering instead of eating it, and he wants Moses to be happy so he attempts to pacify him. When Miriam is struck with leprosy, Aaron is the first to plead for mercy. Even Aaron’s failures can be understood sympathetically. Aaron wants to mollify the people in a time of great angst (they are worried that Moses has disappeared), which is why he builds them a golden calf.
Aaron Is Forgiven
Sociologically speaking, accommodating personalities play a critical role, and this was appreciated and rewarded in the biblical period just as now. Perhaps this is why, if you read the Torah closely, you see that Aaron is ultimately forgiven for the sin of the Golden Calf.
Midrash Tanchumah (Hukkat, Parashah 26 [Buber ed.]) hints to this when it alludes to the similarity between the red heifer used for purification (Num. 19), and the golden calf, saying that “the mother” (the red heifer) comes to atone for the sins of “her child” (the golden calf). Indeed the red heifer is described as a purification offering (חטאת) in Numbers 19. Among all purification offerings it is most similar to the purification offering of a high priest as delineated in Leviticus 4:3-12.
Leviticus 4 (Sin Offering) Numbers 19 (Red Heifer) 3 If it is the anointed priest who sins,thus bringing guilt on the people, he shall offer for the sin that he has committed a bull of the herd without blemish as a sin-offering to the Lord.4 He shall bring the bull to the entrance of the tent of meeting before the Lord and lay his hand on the head of the bull; the bull shall be slaughtered before the Lord. 5 The anointed priest shall take some of the blood of the bull and bring it into the tent of meeting. 6 The priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle some of the blood seven times before the Lord in front of the curtain of the sanctuary… 11 But the skin of the bull and all its flesh, as well as its head, its legs, its entrails, and its dung— 12 all the rest of the bull—he shall carry out to a clean place outside the camp, to the ash heap, and shall burn it on a wood fire; at the ash heap it shall be burned. 1 The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: 2This is a statute of the law that the Lord has commanded: Tell the Israelites to bring you a red heifer without defect, in which there is no blemish and on which no yoke has been laid. 3 You shall give it to the priest Eleazar, and it shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in his presence. 4The priest Eleazar shall take some of its blood with his finger and sprinkle it seven times towards the front of the tent of meeting. 5 Then the heifer shall be burned in his sight; its skin, its flesh, and its blood, with its dung, shall be burned. 6 The priest shall take cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson material, and throw them into the fire in which the heifer is burning. 7 Then the priest shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterwards he may come into the camp; but the priest shall remain unclean until evening. 8 The one who burns the heifer shall wash his clothes in water and bathe his body in water; he shall remain unclean until evening. 9 Then someone who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer, and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place; and they shall be kept for the congregation of the Israelites for the water for cleansing.
The red heifer may thus be interpreted as Aaron’s purification offering, atoning for his role in the construction of the Golden Calf.
The Rabbis, and particularly Hillel, are sensitive to the mediating aspect of Aaron’s personality. This is especially reflected in Hillel’s comments in Pirkei Avot 1:12: “Be a student of Aaron the priest: Who loved peace, and strove for peace, loved people, and attempted to bring them closer to the Torah.”
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February 26, 2014
July 20, 2020
Dr. Rabbi Tzemah Yoreh has a PhD in Bible from Hebrew University, as well as a PhD in Wisdom Literature of the Hellenistic period from the University of Toronto. He has written many books focusing on his reconstruction of the redaction history of Genesis through Kings. He is the author of The First Book of God, and the multi-volume Kernel to Canon series, with books like Jacob’s Journey and Moses’s Mission. Yoreh has taught at Ben Gurion University and American Jewish University. He is currently the leader of the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in New York.
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