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Parashat Ki Tissa 5782

February 17, 2022

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Do You Resolve Conflicts Aaron’s Way or Moses’ Way?
A D’var Torah for Parashat Ki Tissa
By Rabbi Rob Scheinberg

What’s the best way to get two people in a conflict to be reconciled with each other?

Avot De-Rabbi Natan – an early commentary to the Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot) – imagines the conflict resolution strategy employed by Moses’ brother Aaron. When Aaron would see two people in conflict, he would go to one of them and say, “Your friend has just come crying to me, saying ‘Woe is me, that I have offended my friend! Aaron, please go and request forgiveness on my behalf!’” Aaron would sit with him until his anger subsided, and then Aaron would go to the other friend and say exactly the same thing. When the two friends would see each other, they would hug each other, and their conflict would be resolved. (Avot De-Rabbi Natan 12:3) This strategy is presented to illustrate why Aaron was so universally beloved among the people of Israel and gained a reputation as ohev shalom ve-rodef shalom, one who loved peace and pursued it.

When I first encountered this text as a college student, I was impressed by Aaron’s zeal to resolve conflicts. But I was quickly bothered by Aaron’s willingness to be dishonest to both sides in order to bring them together. Additionally, it is hard to believe that this conflict resolution strategy could ever have been effective. After even a brief conversation between the two adversaries, Aaron’s subterfuge would probably have come to light. (Or maybe, if this strategy ever succeeded, it was because the two adversaries now had a common enemy, united in their anger at Aaron for lying to them both!)

Today, though, I see this story as an example of the brilliance of our sages in telling an imaginative story about Aaron that highlights his character trait that is simultaneously so appealing and so maddening.

On the one hand, Aaron seems to be able to see the best in everyone. The very first time Aaron is mentioned in the Torah is during God’s call to Moses at the burning bush, in which God tells Moses that his brother Aaron, who is a skilled communicator, is coming out to meet Moses; “when he sees you, he will rejoice in his heart.” (Exodus 4:14) Aaron is, in fact, the first person in the Torah to be the subject of the verb samekh-mem-het, meaning “to rejoice.”

Our Torah portion of Ki Tissa, however, highlights the problematic side of Aaron’s tendency to see the best in everyone and to seek peace at all times. In the best-known and most troubling episode of this week’s Torah portion, Moses is atop Mount Sinai, and the Israelites approach Aaron to ask him to make a god for them, because they don’t know what happened to Moses. Aaron’s inclination is to keep the peace. He stalls for time, but eventually he submits to their demands, creating the golden calf. There are various ways that Aaron’s actions can be understood, but perhaps the simplest explanation is that Aaron does what we would expect from someone with a conflict-averse temperament. He doesn’t like to say “no.” He can truly empathize with the anxiety of the Israelites and would prefer not to challenge them. Similar to the Avot De-Rabbi Natan text, Aaron’s tendency is to elevate peace over all other values. Only later on does he come to realize that this was a mistake.

I am grateful that the Torah does not suggest that there is only one way to live our lives. The Torah is full of diverse personalities who each have their own traits and quirks, for better and for worse. The Torah can make it clear that Aaron made a tragic error, and also laud him for the personal qualities that led him to make this error. At the end of Aaron’s life, we read that “the entire house of Israel” mourns his loss (Numbers 20:29) — a unanimity of sentiment that does not happen after Moses dies, for which we simply read that “the house of Israel” mourns his loss (Deuteronomy 34:8). An early midrash (Sifra Shmini 2:37) says that this difference emanates from the different styles of these two leaders. Aaron never made people feel bad about themselves. Moses was willing to criticize the people when necessary, and as a result, people felt less warmly towards him.

This is not to say that the Moses temperament or the Aaron temperament is always superior. Rather, it reminds us that the Israelites were fortunate to have people with contrasting styles on their leadership team. Aaron alone, or Moses alone, (or Miriam alone,) would not have been as effective as a combination of their different skills and priorities working together, learning from each other, and challenging each other. In this week’s Torah portion, Moses reproves Aaron for having let the people get out of control. (Exodus 32:21) At a later point in the Torah, however, Aaron reproves Moses for responding to a tragic situation with insufficient empathy and being too quick to judge. (Leviticus 10:19) We can imagine that there were other times when these leaders balanced each other and used their strengths to help each other to compensate for their areas of difficulty.

I wouldn’t recommend Aaron’s conflict resolution method today. But I am grateful that Jewish tradition gives us insights into the minds and motivations of three-dimensional leaders with contrasting styles. It’s to our advantage when we surround ourselves with people who see the world differently from how we do. It leads to better decision-making, and it helps us to grow.

Rabbi Robert Scheinberg, Ph.D., is the Interim Rabbi in Residence at the Academy for Jewish Religion, where he teaches courses in Jewish Liturgy, as well as the Rabbi of the United Synagogue of Hoboken. Rabbi Scheinberg was a member of the editorial committees for Mahzor Lev Shalem and Siddur Lev Shalem, the prayer books used in many Conservative congregations.