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Parashat Ki Tisa 5780

March 12, 2020

A D’var Torah for Parashat Ki Tisa
By Cantor Sandy Horowitz (’14)

In Parashat Ki Tisa Aaron has been left in charge of the Israelites while Moses is meeting with God atop Mount Sinai. As the brother of Moses, Aaron is a likely choice to be given the responsibility of interim-leader. Given what happens however, one might wonder if he was the right person for the job.

Time passes, Moses doesn’t return, God is silent, the Israelites become anxious.  In Exodus 32:1 we read, “The people gathered against Aaron and said to him, come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses… we do not know what has happened to him.”   Aaron immediately complies.  He doesn’t try to convince the people that Moses will be back soon, or encourage them to keep faith with God. Rather, he asks for the gold from the jewelry of their wives and daughters, and uses it to create an idol in the form of a golden calf. This might be seen as a sell-out moment by Aaron.

Rashi defends Aaron’s actions however, saying that the request for jewelry was intended as a delay tactic, in hopes that Moses would soon return.

The creation of the calf-god does seem to appease the people, as they respond with approval, “This is your god oh Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” (Ex 32:4).   For them to invoke God’s greatest accomplishment – bringing the people out of Egypt – and ascribe that to the golden idol is certainly provocative. Yet Aaron remains silent.  Instead, he builds an altar before the calf, and declares that the next day will be a festival for God. Rashi interprets this as an additional attempt to delay the people from actually worshipping the newly-formed idol.

Adding to Rashi’s defense, it may be that Aaron is deliberately being careful not to provoke the people; he wants to avoid a major revolt which he wouldn’t be able to handle, and which would not serve Moses well. So, he goes along with their demands in the hope that Moses will return in time to deal with the situation himself.

There is another aspect to Aaron’s response. For he is a man of action, not words. We recall the attack by Amalek in Exodus Chapter 17, when Moses went to the top of a hill to stand with arms held high as Joshua led the Israelites in battle. Aaron and Hur went with Moses; when he became tired, they placed a stone for him to sit, and when his hands became tired as he held them high, Aaron and Hur held them up for him. No words were spoken, only quiet acts of necessity and kindness.

And yet, one would expect Aaron to also be a man of words; after all, God had appointed him as Moses’ spokesman when Moses was first chosen by God to demand Israelite freedom from Pharaoh. We read in Chapter 4 as God speaks to Moses regarding Aaron: “And you shall speak to him, and put words in his mouth, and I will be with your mouth, and with his mouth.”  

Here however, neither God nor Moses is on hand to tell Aaron what to say, and perhaps this is why he doesn’t argue, or negotiate, or even plead with the Israelites.  When left alone to deal with an unruly and anxious people, his response is to act rather than speak. For this is his personal strength.

And it works. By creating an idol for the people to worship, he calms their fears.  With the absence of both their divine and their human leader, Aaron seems to recognize the peoples’ need for a tangible substitute. He will soon be anointed as the high priest who will receive the Israelites’ tabernacle offerings as physical manifestations of their faith. He understands the value and the necessity of relating to that which is unseen by means of material expression.

Aaron was left on his own to deal with a predictably difficult situation. Rather than try to emulate God and Moses by using verbal communication, he chose to take action, which showed him to be a leader in his own right. God seems to approve, for when Moses returns and the people are punished for their idolatrous actions, Aaron is spared. Perhaps we can learn this from Aaron: when faced with situations that challenge us, may we seek to address them not by emulating others whose strengths we might admire but not possess, but rather by invoking our own unique personal qualities and strengths.
Cantor Sandy Horowitz (AJR ’14) is an independent cantor and tutor.