When Strict Truth Isn’t the Answer

Brigitte Dayan

Although the biblical text seems to implicate Aaron, his motives can be construed either way. This ambiguity, of course, is precisely what makes it such fertile ground for the rabbis, who use it as an opportunity to comment on the desired character traits of leaders.

Let us explore two very different midrashim on Aaron’s role in this incident. In Leviticus Rabbah 7:1, Aaron takes a hammer to destroy the Golden Calf, proclaiming its falsehood. This was a cardinal mistake, says the midrash, as the people, once informed of the magnitude of their sin, are liable to greater punishment. For this, Aaron is punished, perhaps even put in the category of the sinners himself. Better to err innocently than to know the magnitude of your sin, suggests this text.

This is puzzling. After all, Aaron was proclaiming a central Jewish truth – that there is nothing real or substantive in an idol. Isn’t this what our prophets, from Jeremiah to Elijah, did repeatedly, usually at G-d’s behest? What are we to make of a midrash that castigates this type of leadership?

Let us compare this midrash with another one also found in Leviticus Rabbah (10:3). In this scenario, Aaron’s motives are much more altruistic: he decides to take the blame, as it were, for the building of the Calf. That is, Aaron knows full well that the building of the Calf constitutes idol worship, yet he seemingly participates in it so that he can take responsibility for the transgression and thereby save the people from punishment. He casts his lot with the people, even though they have strayed from the truth. And for this, the midrash tells us in effusive language, he is rewarded with the priesthood.

This text is also puzzling: Aaron willfully transgresses a core Jewish commandment—the prohibition against idol worship—in order to mitigate the consequences of a sin. What are we to make of this?

Consider the two values set forth by these midrashim: strict truth on the one hand versus Peoplehood on the other. Strict truth, it seems, is not always the right policy. Aaron’s stance in the first text is patronizing and paternalisitic: he knows better than the people and he loudly proclaims it. He sets himself above them in a show of force, not a desirable trait for a leader. Perhaps sometimes, it is better to bend the truth in order to be unified with the masses. The sense of belonging to one’s people, what we today call Peoplehood, and the willingness to take responsibility for one’s people, even at great personal cost, outweighs the strict truth. This is the tempering message of the second text.

Truth vis-à-vis G-d versus responsibility vis-à-vis the Jewish people. In the rabbis’ imagination, there are times when G-d bows out of the contest, leaving us humans to focus less on Him and more on each other. It may be counter-intuitive, but it’s a powerful lesson that can be applied to our leadership in the community.

Surely, there are times when we feel the need to vindicate our position on a communal issue because we know, perhaps correctly, that it is the best or even the only way to achieve our goal. Yet at what cost do we defend our position? Will it cause our colleagues to see us as too hierarchical, and worse, will it cause them emotional harm? Might our assertive approach set us up to fail even if it is adopted? Is it better in some cases to go along with what we consider a misguided idea that has already taken root?

These are difficult questions, and no doubt, they are contextual and highly subjective. What works for one Jewish organization may not work for another. What is proper for one situation may not be for another.

Yet, in contrasting the values of Truth vs. People, the rabbis of old encourage us to consider the idea that the truth should sometimes be trumped by other values, including the need to foster community. Perhaps this type of balance is the broader Truth of Jewish living. ♦

Leading from Within: Aaron and the Golden Calf

Leviticus Rabbah 7:1

א”ר אסי מלמד שהיה אהרן נוטל קרבנם ופוחסו לפניהם ואומר להם דעו שאין בו ממש הוא שמשה אמר לאהרן (שמות לב) מה עשה לך העם הזה אמר לו מוטב היה להן שידונו שוגגין ואל ידונו מזידים הוא שהקב”ה אמר למשה (שם שמות לב) מי אשר חטא לי אמחנו מספרי הה”ד (דברים ט:כ) ובאהרן התאנף ה’ מאד להשמידו וגו’.

R. Assi said: Scripture teaches, by inference, that Aaron took a hammer and battered it [the Golden Calf] in their presence and said to them: “Know ye that there is nothing real in it!” That is what Moses alluded to when he said to Aaron: “What did this people do unto you, that you have brought a great sin upon them?” (Ex. 32:21). Better that Israel be judged as having sinned in error, than as having sinned presumptuously. That was also why the Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Moses: Whoever has sinned against Me, him will I blot out from My book (ibid. 33). This too, is indicated by what is written: “Moreover, the Lord was very angry with Aaron to have destroyed him” (Deut. 9:20).

Leviticus Rabbah 10:3

וירא אהרן מה ראה אמר אהרן אם בונין הן אותו הסרחון נתלה בהן מוטב שיתלה הסרחון בי ולא בישראל רבי אבא בר יודן בשם ר’ אבא משל לבן מלכים שנתגאה לבו עליו ולקח את הסייף לחתך את אביו א”ל פדגוגו אל תייגע את עצמך תן לי ואני חותך הציץ המלך עליו א”ל יודע אני להיכן היתה כוונתך מוטב שיתלה הסרחון בך ולא בבני חייך מן פלטין דידי לית את זייע ומותר פתורי את אכיל עשרים וארבע אנונס את נסיב כך מן פלטין דילי לית את זייע ומן המקדש לא יצא ומותר פתורי את אכיל והנותר מן המנחה עשרים וארבעה אנונס את נסיב אלו כ”ד מתנות כהונה שניתנו לאהרן ולבניו אמר לו הקב”ה לאהרן אהבת צדק אהבת לצדק את בני ושנאת מלחייבן על כן משחך אלקים אלקיך אמר לו חייך שמכל שבטו של לוי לא נבחר לכהונה גדולה אלא אתה.

“And Aaron saw this” – What did Aaron see? He saw [the situation thus]: If they build it, the sin will attach to them; better that the stench should attach to me and not to Israel. Rabbi Abba bar Yudin said in the name of Rav Abba: This may be compared to the case of a king’s son who became very overbearing and took a sword to cut his father. Said the son’s tutor to him: “Do not trouble yourself, leave it to me and I shall cut him.” The king glanced at the tutor and said to him: “I know what your intention was, namely, that you thought it better that the sin should attach to you rather than to my son. As you live, you shall not leave my palace, and that which remains over from my table you shall eat, 24 perquisites will you receive.” So, too with Aaron, “You shall not leave my palace,” is paralleled by “He shall not go out of the sanctuary” (Lev. 21:12). “And that which remains over from my table, you shall eat,” is [paralleled by] “That which is left of the meal-offering shall be Aaron’s and his sons’” (ibid. 3); “24 perquisites you will receive” is [paralleled by] the 24 gifts of the priesthood assigned to Aaron and his sons. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Aaron, “You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness, you have loved to keep my children guiltless and hated letting them be condemned as guilty. Therefore God has anointed you with the oil of gladness above your fellows.” He said to him, “As you live, out of the whole tribe of Levi, none is chosen for the High Priesthood but you.” ♦

Brigitte Dayan is Director of Alumni Network for the Wexner Foundation. She holds a BS and MS in Journalism from Northwestern University, and an MA in Bible from Yeshiva University. She can be reached at [email protected].
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Summer 2009