By Rabbi Aron Tendler
The Parsha begins on the 1st day of Nissan, 2449. As part of the
inauguration of Aharon and his four sons into the priesthood, they had
already been sequestered in the Mishkan for seven days. The 1st day of
Nissan was the eighth and last day of their inauguration process and the 1st
day that the Mishkan was to be fully functional. The offerings that
celebrated the inauguration of the Mishkan are detailed in the beginning of
Shimini along with the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu.
The first Korbonos - sacrifices to be offered were performed by Aharon, with
the help of his sons; and the very first Korban was a Chatas - a sin
offering, comprised of an Egel - a calf. Rashi references the Medresh
Tanchuma that explains that the reason for the sin offering of a calf was to
affect atonement for Aharon's part in facilitating the sin of the Golden
Before Aharon began doing the service the verse states, "Moshe said to
Aharon, come near to the Altar and perform the service." Rashi references
the Torahs Kohanim that explains why Aharon had to be summoned by Moshe to
perform the service, though he had already been commanded to do so. Rashi
explains that Aharon was embarrassed to assume the role of the High Priest
because of the part he had played in the Golden Calf. Therefore, Moshe had
to say to his brother, "Do not be embarrassed (though you had a part in the
Golden Calf) this is why you were chosen!"
From the two Rashi's referenced it is obvious that Aharon's selection as the
Kohain Gadol, as well as the inaugural service of the Mishkan, were in direct
response to the sin of the Golden Calf.
The climax of the inaugural service on the eighth day was the fire that G-d
sent down from heaven to light the Alter and consume the offerings. At the
very same time that the fire descended from heaven Nadav and Avihu, the two
elder sons of Aharon, offered their "Aish Zarah-strange fire" and died. The
juxtaposition of Aharon's selection as the High Priest to the deaths of Nadav
and Avihu was intended to focus us on the why Aharon was deserving of the
position and why his sons were not. Therefore, we can assume that if Aharon
was chosen to be the Kohain Gadol because he had sinned with the Golden Calf
and then repented, then the sin that rendered Nadav and Avihu unfit to be
Kohanim was in some way related to the sin of the Golden Calf.
Following the deaths of Nadav and Avihu the Kohanim were commanded not to
perform the service in the Mishkan after having drunk wine. The placement of
this prohibition immediately following the deaths of Aharon's sons is
discussed by all the commentaries, but it is logical to assume that it too is
somehow connected to Aharon's selection and Nadav and Avihu's deaths.
Therefore, it is logical to assume that the prohibition against drinking wine
before participating in the Mishkan's service; the deaths of Nadav and Avihu
at the time of the Mishkan's inauguration; and Aharon's selection to the
office of High Priest are all related to the sin of the Golden Calf.
What part did Aharon play in the sin of the Golden Calf? A study of the
story and the Rashis in Shemos 32 reveals the fatal heroism of Aharon's
motives. The Talmud in Sanhedrin 7a tells us that Aharon's nephew, Chur the
son of Miriam, had attempted to stop Jews from losing faith in Moshe's return
and had had been killed by the confused and terrified crowd. Having
witnessed the death of Chur, Aharon feared that he too might suffer the same
fate if he tried to challenge the crowd. His fear was not for his own death,
but for the unforgiving wrath of G-d against the nation, had he also been
killed. He feared that G-d would not forgive the people and the nation would
have to be destroyed. Therefore, he decided to take an active role in
creating the Golden Calf hoping that he could delay the people until Moshe
At best, Moshe would return and the whole crisis would be averted. At worst,
if Moshe did not come back in time: 1. G-d's anger would be directed against
himself for his part in its formation, rather than against the people. 2. If
the people did worship the calf, it would be a sin of idolatry, rather than
murder, which G-d would forgive them for. Therefore, Aharon chose compromise
and manipulation rather than confrontation.
From the perspective of Aharon's character that the Talmud describes as, "One
who loved peace and pursued peace," (Rashi, Bamidbar: 20:29) Aharon's
strategy in dealing with the crisis was consistent, However, it is clear from
Moshe's criticism of Aharon, "What did this people do to you that you brought
a grievous sin upon it? (Shemos 32:32), that Aharon was held accountable for
his reasoning and strategy.
What other strategy could Aharon have devised given the circumstances of
Chur's death and his fears for the future of the nation? The answer is in
contrasting Aharon's strategy to the way Moshe responded upon descending from
Mt. Sinai. Moshe immediately rallied the tribe of Levi, and without preamble
or discussion punished the sinners. Aharon's mistake not realizing that he
was not Chur. He was Aharon the brother of Miriam and Moshe, the son of
Yocheved and Amram. He was Aharon, the most beloved and trusted man in the
entire nation (Rashi, Divarim 34:8). Had he forcefully and angrily
confronted the nation's defection and failing trust, they would have
listened! The entire incident of the Golden Calf would have been averted!
The nation would have learned an important lesson regarding their own
vulnerability and the frailty of their newfound faith. The first Luchos
would not have been broken and G-d's overtly manifest presence would not have
withdrawn from within the midst of the nation. The Mishkan would not have had
to been built and the entire history of the relationship between the Jews and
the other nations would have been positive and loving, rather than hateful
As we know, because the sin of the Golden Calf did occur, G-d withdrew His
overt presence from within the nation and the Mishkan was constructed. The
Mishkan, and then the Bais Hamikdash, became the means for the nation to deal
with their fundamentally flawed faith and repair their relationship with G-d.
The Mishkan housed the Mizbeach, which was the most direct way for the
people and the individual to express their desire to be close to G-d. It was
the focus of their repentance and their thanksgiving. It was the primary
means for elevating their broken spirits and actualizing their devotion and
passion. It became the fountain from which they could drink salvation and
attain forgiveness. The fire that always burned upon the Alter, and the
rising smoke of the burning offerings, reminded humanity that G-d too desires
closeness and intimacy with His children. G-d wants to forgive us.
In selecting the first Kohain Gadol, G-d chose Aharon. Aharon, whose love
for the people knew no bounds; Aharon, who willingly sacrificed himself for
the sake of his beloved nation; Aharon, who had sinned out of love, and then
had to learn that he too could be forgiven. This singular human being who
only craved "Shalom-peace and wholeness." Was the only individual worthy of
effecting continuous forgiveness for G-d's chosen nation. However, Aharon's
sin was because he lacked faith in himself and in the position he occupied in
the hearts of the nation. Aharon needed to learn from his brother, "the most
humble of all men upon the earth," that humility too has its limitations.
There comes a time when compromise and sensitivity destroys peace rather than
On the first day of Nissan, three thousand three hundred and nine years ago,
Aharon was commanded to inaugurate the Mishkan and bring his sin offering.
At first, he could not do it. At first, he was beset by fears of inadequacy
because he had been the architect of the Golden Calf. It had been his wrong
decision that had altered history for all time. Therefore, Moshe summoned
his extraordinary brother and said, "Aharon, come forward and assume your
rightful position. No one else in all of history, including myself, is as
worthy of being the first Kohain Gadol! Who better than you to affect
Shalom-peace and wholeness between G-d and His children? Absolute love and
concern for the safety of the nation motivated your sin at the time of the
Golden Calf. Your sin was unintentional (that is why he was commanded to
bring a Chatas and not an Asham). Yes, you are still held responsible for
your decision, but G-d Himself has testified that your intentions were noble
and pure. My dearest brother, come forward and assume your rightful
position! This is why you were chosen!"
The Kohanim represented the people. As such, they had to lose their
individuality in their capacity as priests. The clothing they wore and the
utensils they used during the service belonged to the nation. It was
forbidden for a Kohain to use anything private or personal. Aharon was the
preeminent example of an individual who lived his life to serve the people.
On the other hand, the commentaries point out that Nadav and Avihu used their
own fire-pans, with coals from their personal hearths to bring their fateful
offerings. They were motivated by their own passions and desires to be
closer to G-d and lost sight of the fact that their designation as Kohanim
was to serve the nation, not their own needs, no matter how seemingly noble
and pure those needs might have appeared.
The Talmud records that Nadav and Avihu were potentially as great as Moshe
and Aharon. Yet, their relationship with G-d was fatally flawed. Had they
been true in their service to G-d they would have first asked their teachers,
Moshe and Aharon, whether or not they should proceed with their inspired
offerings. That would have revealed a core humility and desire to serve the
nation and G-d, regardless of their personal needs and desires. The very
nobility and humility of spirit that was the hallmark of their father and
uncle, was lacking in them.
Following their deaths, G-d prohibited the Kohanim from performing the
service in the Mishkan if they had drunk wine. We are well aware that
alcohol is a depressant that allows the drinker to be self-centered and
selfish. Inhibitions fall to the way side and the drunk feels empowered to
do or say whatever he wants. Therefore, a Kohain who must be completely
focused on serving the people and G-d and must lose his individuality must
never officiate in the Mishkan if intoxicated. Otherwise, he puts himself in
danger of suffering the same fate as Nadav and Avihu. Just as they had died
for being selfish and self-centered, so too would a Kohain die if he had
imbibed wine before serving in the Mishkan.
The sin of Aharon in constructing the Golden Calf was not the same sin as the
people who had worshiped the Golden Calf. His guilt was the unintentional
sin of having made the wrong decision out of fear for their safety. His fear
for the future of the nation motivated him to lose faith in his own abilities
to best serve G-d and the people. At no time did Aharon exhibit concern for
himself or his own safety. On the other hand, Nadav and Avihu, as great as
they were, sinned because they were motivated by what they wanted and
desired, rather than by what G-d commanded and the nation deserved.
Copyright © 2000 by Rabbi Aron Tendler and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, Valley Village, CA.