|Moshe’s long absence from the camp, while communing with God on the mountain, left Aharon to handle the people’s religious insecurity. This nearly insurmountable task was beyond Aharon’s abilities, leaving him to give in to their idolatrous desire to have him craft for them an egel hazahav – a golden calf to worship as a replacement for Moshe’s leadership:
And Aharon said to them: Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters and bring them to me. And all the people took off the gold rings that were on their ears and brought them to Aharon. And he took them from their hand and he fashioned it in a mold and made it into a golden calf. (Exodus 32:2-5)
Later on in the story, when Moshe asks Aharon to account for the events in the camp, he reports an alternate version of the events, removing himself from direct responsibility for the people’s sinful actions:
And they said to me (Aharon): Make for us gods that will go before us, for this man Moshe who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what happened to him. And I said to them: ‘Whoever has gold, take it off.’ And they gave it to me, and I flung it into the fire, and out came a calf. (Exodus 32:23-24)
The effort to minimize Aharon’s responsibility for making the golden calf yielded some interesting results in the midrashic tradition. In one retelling of the story, the following ahistorical midrash makes Micah, an ignoble figure from Sefer Shoftim, who was infamous for having established an idolatrous sanctuary (See Judges 17), the villain:
Rabbi Yermiah said that when they brought [their] earrings to Aharon, he raised his eyes heavenward and said: ‘Unto You I raise my eyes, to You enthroned in the heaven’ (Psalm 123:1). You who know all thoughts are aware that I do this against my will. He cast [their earrings] into the fire… Some say that Micah whom Moshe from Pharoah’s building [projects – See Rashi, Sanhedrin 101b]. What [else] did Moshe save from the building bricks?… Micah took the tablet which Moses had written ‘alei shor – go up ox’ (an allusion to Yosef) upon them when he raised Joseph’s coffin out of the Nile and cast them into the furnace together with the earrings. Then the calf came out bursting forth leaping. At this, the people began to say: ‘This is your god, O Israel.’ (Exodus 32:4) The ministering angels then began to proclaim: ‘They forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt (Psalms 106:21). (adapted from Tanhuma Ki Tisa 19)
Let’s unpack this midrash a little more. It combines elements of a number of rabbinic legends which floated around the Jewish world at the time of the sages. As the story goes, when it came time for the children of Israel to leave Egypt, Moshe needed to fulfill the promise to retrieve Yosef’s bones for reburial in Eretz Yisrael. Since, according to rabbinic legend, the Egyptians had buried Yosef deep in the Nile River so that the Israelites would be unable to find them, they would never be able to leave Egypt. Moshe, however, had a trick up his sleeve. He had a magic tablet which read ‘Rise up ox’ – a reference to Yosef, which he cast into the Nile causing Yosef’s bones rise to the surface of the Nile. Micah, who as we noted above lived much later, shows up in this story as a child whom Moshe had saved from death in Egypt. He somehow came across this magic tablet, took it with him out of Egypt and at the opportune time, caste it into the furnace together with the people’s gold jewelry, and magically out hopped the golden calf.
While the obvious purpose of this midrash was to colorfully ameliorate Aharon’s responsibility for the sin of the golden calf, an equally significant message lurks beneath the surface of this story. The plot of the story turns around the magic tablet which serves as a catalyst for both good and for evil, depending on whom and how it is used. It is a tool for redemption and equally a tool for destruction.
So many things in life are like that and the choices in how we use them are in our hands.