Rabbinic Reflections: Issue 55

Think Before You Act

March 5, 2021

Dear Holy Friends,

I hope this correspondence finds you doing well and in good health.

Please join us this evening and tomorrow morning for our Shabbat Zoom services. They are really a lovely way to begin your weekend and to feel the warmth of our community, especially if you have been staying at home and not socializing with friends and family.

Also, please join us on Monday night at 8PM as we begin our new adult education series, Superstars of Jewish Song. Our first guest will be the world-renowned Hazzan, Jackie Mendelson. I promise you an uplifting and delightful evening.

This week’s Torah portion of Ki Tissa speaks of the lack of faith of the Jewish people and the sin of the Golden Calf.

As Moshe lingers on Mount Sinai for his one-on-one with the Ribbono Shel Olam, the Master of the Universe, the people become anxious and worry about his delayed return. Recklessly, they approach Aaron, the High Priest, and say, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt - we do not know what has happened to him (Exodus 32:1).”

Likely, you are familiar with the rest of the story (either from the movie or having been in shul anytime in the last 3000 years) and eventually, when Moshe descends, he casts the Tablets of the Covenant to the ground, breaking them into multiple pieces.

Our tradition reads the actions of Aaron in two ways.

First, there is an inclination to defend Aaron. For example, the text reads that at the beginning of the process, he asks the people to remove rings of gold that are “in the ears of your wives, sons and daughters and bring them to me (Exodus 32:2).” After collecting the resources, Aaron then places them in a cloth. Aaron then builds an altar while proclaiming that, tomorrow we will have a festival to Hashem! The commentators suggest that all of this was done in an effort to procrastinate and veer the people away from sin. This implies that initially, Aaron didn’t think B’nei Yisrael would want to give up their gold and when they did, he took his time to build an altar. Even then, he made a point of putting off the celebration for another twenty-four hours. Recognizing the tremendous pressure that Aaron was under from a disgruntled people, tradition interprets his actions in a favorable light.

On the other hand, there is a second part to the story. When Moshe descends, he confronts his brother Aaron saying, “What did this people do to you that you have brought such great sin upon them (Exodus 32:21)?” In one of the greatest non-apologies of all time, Aaron replies that in response to the collection of gold, “I hurled it into the fire and out came this calf (Exodus 32:24)!” Rashi, the eleventh century commentator, suggests that the statement of Aaron was “I didn’t know that this calf would come out, but it did come out.” Sforno, a fifteenth century Italian commentator, suggests Aaron was saying, “This happened spontaneously, without my having done anything once I had thrown the gold into the crucible.” Here, there is castigation at Aaron for not taking any responsibility for his own actions and involvement.

Believe that ultimately the dichotomy of these approaches may have application to contemporary social, political and religious situations. Adopting the first perspective, we always have the choice to give people the benefit of the doubt. We should be encouraged to hear the motivation for their choices. The second approach teaches us that while we should not expect perfection, we are encouraged to demand accountability of our leaders.

I have always been moved by a metaphor that suggests that throughout our lives, we have to acknowledge that nobody is perfect and that we all make deposits and withdrawals from our “moral bank account.” We study the story of Aaron, like we do every other part of the Torah, to learn its lessons. Even if Aaron was not a perfect leader, his life was influential and consequential. As we go about our daily lives, it is important for each of us to think about our actions and how they may be perceived and judged by others.

As we read in our liturgy every day, “May it be your will, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors, to grant us a portion in Your Torah and may we be disciples of Aaron the Kohen, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving our fellow creatures and drawing them near to the Torah.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Eric L. Wasser, EdD
201 562 5277

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