Aaron and the Golden Calf

On Yom Kippur, the High Priest was allowed to enter The Holy of Holies, the most sanctified part of the temple. In that room, the Ark of the Covenant was kept. When the high Priest entered, he was required to remove all of his golden garments. He could only answer with the white linen clothes of a basic Priest. The Talmud gives the reason: the prosecution cannot become the defense. What does this mean?

The Tabernacle and its requirements are written before the Golden calf episode in the Bible. Nonetheless, the Tabernacle was actually commanded after the Golden calf episode, not before. The reasons for this are beyond the scope of this article. There are many elements of the Tabernacle and its services that are intended to atone for that tragic sin.

Thus, the very material of gold reminds one of the Golden calf. It is a "prosecutor", in that it brings up that painful episode again. Yom Kippur is the day when the Golden calf episode was forgiven, and when Moses returned from Mount Sinai with the second set of the stones of the 10 Commandments. Thus, at the heart of that day's service, is forgiveness for the sin of the calf. The high priest enters the holy of holies, where those stones of the Commandments are housed in the Holy Ark. It would be inappropriate for the high priests to wear gold at that moment. The prosecutor, i.e. the gold, cannot become the defense in this atonement ceremony.

But what about Aaron? He himself would seem to be part of the prosecution, as it was he who made the calf! Now it is true that many commentaries mitigate Aaron's role in the calf, and explain how he was attempting to dissuade the people, to delay them until Moses could return, and so forth. I'm sure that Aaron was not an idolater and very much made this calf against his will, but the Bible is clear that he made it intentionally and did not put up a fight. So why is he allowed to enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur?

The priests come from the family of Levi, the tribe of people who did not participate in the worship of the Golden calf. Originally, it was to be the first born sons who were to perform the Temple service. Since, however, they did participate in the Golden calf, this task was taken away from them and given to the Levites. So we see that service in the Tabernacle was contingent upon not having participated in the sin of the Golden calf.

So what about Aaron!? Why is he not excluded? Was this candidate not properly vetted?

Of course he was, and this is the unique power of the Jewish view on life. Judaism does not look at a person's past, it looks at a person's character and their potential for the future. And in Judaism, love conquers all.

Aaron was the paradigm of love. Our sages teach us to "Be among the disciples of Aaron: love peace, pursue peace, love people and bring them close to Tora." The job of the priests in the Tabernacle required love of Israel, love of humanity. This Aaron had in abundance, more than anyone else. In fact, one could say that it was Aaron's love of the people that led him to make the calf. He did not initiate it, it certainly grieved him deeply. When explaining his deed to Moses, he said, "You know this people, that they are in a bad way."

Good and bad are concepts that express more than simply a value judgment. During the days of creation, the day when things were separated, Monday, is never described as being "good." That is because separation, while at times necessary, is not good, any more than getting a cavity filled, while necessary, is pleasureful. God is one, he desires his children to be one. When there is war, strife and fratricide, it is not good, it is bad. Aaron was telling Moses that the people were splitting, were turning against each other. It was clearly the responsibility of those who desired "A God who will go before us, for we do not know what has happened to this Moses."

Aaron did whatever he could to prevent this greatest evil, civil war. The real dividers were the sinners, including the first born, who thus disqualified themselves from working in the Tabernacle. Aaron was a unifier, and if the price to salvage the People's unity was making a calf, he was prepared to do it. For Aaron, love conquered all.

Twice daily the Jew proclaims his faith. He does so by reciting the famous Shema prayer, "Hear, oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one." This proclamation is immediately followed by a command: "and you shall love thy Lord with all of your hearts, with all of your soul, and with all of your strength." The first thing a Jew needs to put in his heart is love. Love conquers all.

That is not to say that idolatry, licentiousness, and other sins are given a free pass. It is to say that God has lots of patience for those things, but not for hatred and violence towards our fellow human beings. Love and peace are at the top of the list, and for the High Priests, they are the most basic job requirements.

The Powerful Message of the 10 Commandments

Many commentaries wonder why these 10 verses are treated specially. The questioner is correct! All of the commandments and all of the verses of the Torah have equal sanctity! Why the differentiation?

One explanation sees the 10 Commandments as being more than just commandments. They are the encapsulation of the entire Torah. The great Rabbi Saadya Gaon teaches that each of the 10 Commandments is, in truth, a category of Commandments. Thus, we are not standing for 10 commandments alone, we are standing for the entire Torah. This reading is like a reading of the entire Torah.

This makes sense in that each of the commandments seems to contain a number of sub- commandments. The second commanded, for example, seems to have four different elements: 1. You shall not have other gods, 2. You shall not make idols, 3. You shall not bow down to them, 4. You shall not serve them.

In fact, the phrase "10 Commandments," is mistranslated. It should be translated as, "10 utterances." Rabbi Saadya's explanation removes this problem.

Another explanation comes from Rabbi Moshe Nachmanidies. He compares the entire Sinai episode to the process of a convert to Judaism. The convert must accept the Torah and the commandments. The Talmud tells us that we don't need to teach the convert all 613 commandments in one shot. This would be very difficult. So what do we do?

Instead, we teach them a sampling of the commandments. We teach them easy ones, and harder ones. The same thing happened at Mount Sinai. God will reveal the full depth of the Torah over the years to come. At that moment when Israel "converted," and accepted the yoke of Judaism, they were taught a sampling of the commandments. Specifically, the 10 Commandments. Thus, perhaps we stand because we are accepting the Torah once more.

I would like to suggest another explanation. Rabbi Herschel Schechter of Yeshiva University explained the significance of the fifth commandment, "Honor thy father and my mother." According to a midrash, this commandment was actually given previously, at a place called "Marah."

Rabbi Schechter quotes from the work of Rabbi Joseph Engle, who wrote extensively on this commandment. After the Israelites encountered the bitter waters at Marah, the Torah tells us that, "There He gave [Israel] a decree and a law." What were the decree and the law?

Rashi explains that the decree was the commandments of the Red Heifer, which is called a decree in the book of numbers. The law refers to the body of civil laws. That all make sense. Where does the midrash see the commandment of honoring one's parents in this phrase?

Rabbi Engle brings an argument between the sages Hillel and Shammai as to whether it would've been better had man never been created. Their disciples debated this for years, and finally concluded that it would've been better had man indeed never been created. The commentary Tosaphot claims that this only applies to an average or sinful person. A righteous person, on the other hand, is certainly the beneficiary of being created.

So if a person is righteous, they should be grateful to their parents who brought them into this world. For them, honoring by father and mother is a logical law. The father and mother did them a favor.

If the person is not righteous, however, by rights they should be upset with their parents. Why did they bring them into this world and get them into this difficult situation? Nonetheless, honoring them remains a decree of God, even though it seems illogical. Thus, the commandment of honoring parents comes from both of those phrases: Decree, if the person is not righteous, and Law (a logical, understandable law), if the person is righteous.

I would like to suggest an additional explanation. The last commandment is the prohibition on coveting your neighbor's property. The Hasidic master, the Bnei Yissachar, expands this prohibition to include not buying a Alfa Romeo because your neighbor has an Alfa Romeo. Certainly it is prohibited to attempt to acquire your neighbor's. The desire to live your neighbor's life, that is what is wrong.

Therefore, a person who desires to live their neighbor's life will not properly fulfill honoring their parents. They will resent that they were not born to their neighbors parents, not given his skin, his talents, his successes. For this person, honoring the parents is a decree.

But a person who understands that they are unique, and that they have gifts that no one else has, is prepared to live their own life of excellence. For them, their parents are the best in the world. Honoring them is a logical law.

God gives a preamble to the 10 Commandments, explaining how the Jewish people shall be "chosen." Chosen means unique, not better or worse. It means different and special. Every human being should be different and special. Every nation should be different and special. The 10 Commandments teach us that. Be different, be special, be excellent, and you will change the world.

The Mystery of Life

The section of the Torah where God commands Israel to construct a Tabernacle commences with the instruction to collect contributions from the people. They are to donate their gold and silver, each according to the generosity of his heart. After the list of required materials comes the famous command, "and they shall make for Me a sanctified place and I shall dwell in their midst." In the next verse, we meet the word "Tabernacle" for the first time.

A careful reading reveals an interesting fact: all of this donated gold and silver is requested before we know the purpose. Only after everything is gathered do we find out that we are constructing a Tabernacle. Why does the Torah not begin with that fact? Let it say, "you shall construct a Tabernacle of gold and silver," and follow that up with the requirement of soliciting contributions from the people. Why have them give first before they know what they are giving to?

Another interesting question involves the order of the sanctified objects to be built for this Tabernacle. The first thing commanded is the Ark of the Covenant. Afterwards, we get the commandments regarding the actual Tabernacle, and other internal elements such as the candelabra and the table for the show bread. And yet, in a later section, we find that Bezalel changed the order and constructed the Tabernacle before the Ark. Was he arguing with Moses? Was this insubordination? How could anyone argue with Moses on a matter of Jewish law?

The answer to these questions touches a core issue in our spiritual and mundane lives. Do we behave as we behave because it is what we believe in our hearts, or because it looks good to others? Does an actor act because he loves the art of theater, or because he enjoys the fame?

Do we worship God because it will bring some reward, or because our spirits drive us to do so?

Rabbi Solomon Sorotzkin points our attention to the word in the verse we quoted, "sanctified place." It does not say Tabernacle, because the Tabernacle is merely the external manifestation of a "sanctified place." In other words, the holiness of the Tabernacle must preexist in our hearts. That verse concludes, "and I will dwell in their midst." It does not say, "and I will dwell in it," which would imply that sanctified place, that Tabernacle. This versus saying something entirely different! It is saying that if we sanctify this world, God will be in our hearts. That will create the drive to build the most beautiful Tabernacle that could possibly exist.

Moses and Bezalel had no disagreement. They were talking about different things. The Ark contains the tablets with the 10 Commandments. It is the spiritual heart of the Tabernacle. Moses was speaking in didactic terms: start with the purpose, start with the core reason. That core reason is Torah, the source of all of our spirituality. That must be the starting point for any construction of holiness. The beautiful externalities must grow from that, not the other way around.

Bezalel, who changed the order, was involved in the practical construction of the Tabernacle, and correctly argued that it is not respectful to the Torah and to the Ark, which symbolizes it, to make it first and have it wait for the Tabernacle that will house it to be completed. First make the house, then make the Ark.

Now, the holy Ark, despite its importance, was never to be seen by human eyes. It was housed in the innermost chamber, the Holy of Holies, a place where only the high priest entered on Yom Kippur. Even then, he could not see the Ark because he was carrying incense, which sent up smoke of the incense that concealed it. And yet, the description of the Ark points to the most beautiful object imaginable! Golden coverings, beautifully crafted Cherubim adorning it. Why such astounding beauty on an object that no one was allowed to look at? Isn't that a waste?

If you have ever walked in the forest alone, you may relate to the feeling I will describe. There is a mystery there, a spiritual presence that cannot be seen but can clearly be felt. Our eyes and our ears take in all of the sights and sounds available, but something in our heart feels a Presence. Native Americans sensed the spirit in all of nature. Humans, if we are open to it, can feel that mystery. That mystery does something important to us.

It is that sense of mystery that gives everything in this world a special glow. That mystery is only accessible to spiritual people. Someone who is addicted to all of the material pleasures the world offers will not perceive this mystery, and will be deprived of the incredible joy it provides. Yes, they may appreciate beautiful nature, but it will have no effect on their soul. The spiritual person is motivated by that sense of mysterious presence to become even more spiritual. The inspiration from time in the forest was sought out by great Hasidic masters, and spurred them to even greater spiritual heights.

So why is the holy Ark, so beautiful in its creation, hidden to us? Because it symbolizes the mystery of God. In truth, we do see the holy Ark, just not with our eyes. We see it with our hearts. We know it is there, we know its beauty defies description, and we feel a yearning for it. That yearning prompts us to great spiritual heights, it prompts us to construct a Tabernacle of great beauty and inspiration.

When we start with the sanctified place in our hearts, we become aware of the mystery of the Eternal One. This makes it impossible for us not to desire to construct the most beautiful Tabernacle in this most beautiful, and mysterious, world.