Shabbat candles: 5:11 p.m.
Torah: Ex. 30:11-34:35
Haftarah: I Kings 18:1-39
Havdalah: 6:11 p.m.
The characterization of Aaron and his relationship with Moses is established early in Shemot (Exodus). Aaron is Moses’ older brother, his supporter and helper. Aaron is the one who makes it possible for Moses to “speak” to the Israelites and to Pharaoh. Moses is described as a “God” to Aaron, while Aaron is described as Moses’ prophet [Exodus 7:1]. The hierarchy is clear, but the interdependence is emphasized as well. Aaron is in a leadership position, as Kohen Gadol (High Priest), and as a fellow participant in approaching God at Sinai. Leading up to the Golden Calf episode, we would have expected Aaron to be a worthy and reliable surrogate leader in Moses’ absence.
That is why it is particularly jolting and disheartening to see Aaron so quickly follow the people’s lead, creating for them a Golden Calf. If we feel disillusioned and disappointed, we can only begin to imagine Moses’ confusion and dismay at seeing not only that the Israelites had erred, but that Aaron had led them in this idolatrous behavior. Yet, Moses’ response to Aaron is equally astonishing. “What did this people do to you that you brought upon them a great sin?” [Ex. 32:21]. Moses says this after smashing the Tablets, and destroying the calf. Moses’ fury is not in question, and his desire to blame and to punish is evident. Despite all of that, his question assumes that Aaron would only have acted in this way if the people had done something terrible to him, forcing his hand.
Is Moses being righteous, judging others favorably, and thus only thinking positively of Aaron? He doesn’t have that same approach toward the Israelites. He does pray on their behalf, pleading for their lives, but he does not assume that they are innocent, or are to be judged kindly for their actions. He saves that only for Aaron, imagining that the Israelites must have done terrible things to Aaron to cause him to have erred so greatly.
Moses is unwilling to accuse his brother directly, or to assume the worst. Moses calls on the Levites who stood with him to kill their brothers, their neighbors, their kinsmen [Ex. 32:27]. Following that massacre of 3,000 people (so inconsonant with the usual spiritual role of the Levites), Moses calls on them to renew their distinctive devotion to God [Ex. 32:29].
How do we understand Moses’ reaction? What was it that didn’t let Moses lose faith in his brother? Perhaps it was the interdependent nature of their relationship, or that Moses spent so much of his life not knowing where he belonged in terms of family that he needed not to lose faith in his one brother. Of course, we can only imagine, then, the extra pain that he felt later when Aaron and Miriam turned on him [Numbers 12], speaking ill of Moses and his wife. Moses did not respond outwardly to his siblings’ accusations. Significantly, when God rebuked them on Moses’ behalf, God explained that there was no one more faithful than Moses [Num. 12:7]. One usually reads this as Moses being most faithful to God. Perhaps, though, God is emphasizing that Moses has shown only intense faithfulness to his siblings as well, and therefore is all the more deserving of their loyalty and devotion.
When reading this text within the arc of biblical narrative themes, the relationship of Moses, Aaron and Miriam is seen as the first truly successful sibling relationship. Each generation of siblings in Genesis engages in destructive rivalry, banishment or murder, beginning with Cain and Abel, through Joseph and his brothers (until their belated reconciliation and concern for Benjamin). In Exodus, however, it is refreshing to see siblings who, from the beginning, protect one another [Ex. 2:4], who are happy to see each other [Ex. 4:14] and who cooperate to perform God’s will. Those qualities in and of themselves exhibit a new type of sibling paradigm.
Perhaps the highest level, however, the level that Moses brings us to is his generous characterization of his brother Aaron, even under the most difficult of circumstances. When Moses asks Aaron what the people could have possibly done to him to cause him to commit this grievous sin, Moses, as in almost everything else he does, is modeling a level of behavior higher than what have yet seen in the Bible.
In our daily encounters with others, brothers and sisters all, may we embrace the high and principled standards of love and understanding, faith and trust, which Moses set in relating to his siblings.
Ora Horn Prouser is executive vice president and academic dean at The Academy for Jewish Religion, a pluralistic rabbinical and cantorial school in Yonkers, N.Y.