Sunday, June 24, 2007

Aaron's Flaw

While in shul today, I stumbled across this verse:

"Aaron shall be gathered unto his people; for he shall not enter into the land which I have given unto the children of Israel, because you rebelled against My word at the waters of Meribah" (Numbers 20: 24).

Turning to the Hebrew text, I noted that the word used for "you" is מְרִיתֶם -plural! It is not merely Moses, then; Aaron is also considered to have sinned and rebelled against God in the matter of the rock!

Puzzled, I considered why this would be.

I advanced an explanation for the problem:
    Aaron is a man who is twice placed in a situation where he is supposed to stop something, prevent a chain of events. He is supposed to stand out, to speak up, to halt events before they proceed further and become problematic. The first situation is that of the Golden Calf. The people approached Aaron with their desire to build and serve a deity. Aaron, perplexed, realized that they could not be reasoned with; he saw what happened to Hur, whom they killed. He therefore decided to stall them, to stave off their desire. "Ask your wives for gold," he pleaded with them, thinking that women would be loath to give up their precious baubles. He did not count upon their dedication to the project, upon the fact that these men would tear the earrings from their own earlobes and throw them upon the pile, so desperate were they for a god, an image, a form whom they could understand and worship. Aaron, helpless, had to do as they desired when confronted with his realized request. He threw the gold into the fire and a calf was formed; he then created a kind of worship and ceremonies for it- or for God through it.

    When Moses returns, he is furious with Aaron, utterly horrified. "What did this people do to you, that you have brought a great sin upon them?" he challenges angrily (Exodus 32:21). He is deeply disturbed by Aaron's behavior in the face of this chain of events. It becomes obvious that Aaron's actions were incorrect, no matter how logical they seemed at the time. Aaron was supposed to have spoken up, to have taken action, to have tried to stop the people no matter the price, even if he too would have been stoned to death. Aaron failed in this duty.

    Now Aaron is placed in the same position. Moses is supposed to speak to the rock, not strike it. But Moses decides to strike the rock, and what is more, to strike it twice. Aaron stands by and does nothing. He is supposed to stop him, to prevent his action, again he is supposed to take some kind of action. But he does not. He has failed once more.
This was the explanation I initially advanced, but upon closer inquiry I realized that it was incorrect. Why? Look to these verses (and notice the parts I have bolded):
    ו וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן מִפְּנֵי הַקָּהָל, אֶל-פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, וַיִּפְּלוּ, עַל-פְּנֵיהֶם; וַיֵּרָא כְבוֹד-יְהוָה, אֲלֵיהֶם. {פ}
    6 And Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly unto the door of the tent of meeting, and fell upon their faces; and the glory of the LORD appeared unto them. {P}

    ז וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר.
    7 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying:

    ח קַח אֶת-הַמַּטֶּה, וְהַקְהֵל אֶת-הָעֵדָה אַתָּה וְאַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ, וְדִבַּרְתֶּם אֶל-הַסֶּלַע לְעֵינֵיהֶם, וְנָתַן מֵימָיו; וְהוֹצֵאתָ לָהֶם מַיִם מִן-הַסֶּלַע, וְהִשְׁקִיתָ אֶת-הָעֵדָה וְאֶת-בְּעִירָם.
    8 'Take the rod, and assemble the congregation, thou, and Aaron thy brother, and speak ye [plural] unto the rock before their eyes, that it give forth its water; and thou shalt bring forth to them water out of the rock; so thou shalt give the congregation and their cattle drink.'

    ~Numbers 20: 6-8
This is very strange! God appears to both Moses and Aaron yet when he gives the pivotal command, the command that Moses and Aaron are to speak to the rock, not hit it, he only speaks to Moses.

This means that it is only Moses who received this communication from God, only Moses who knew that he was supposed to speak to the rock. He was supposed to repeat this over to Aaron (this is obvious because of the word "v'dibartem" which is plural; both Moses and Aaron had to speak to the rock.) But did he? The text does not say. From simply reading the text, we must assume that Aaron did not know that Moses was supposed to speak to the rock rather than hit it.

Therefore, Aaron cannot be held culpable for failing to stop Moses from hitting the rock.

But my explanation still stands- only differently. Why was Aaron guilty?

Aaron was guilty because he did not react to Moses' words.

Aaron had been placed in a position where he was supposed to act, to respond, to stop the people from committing a grave sin. He did act, but incorrectly. He aided them in this sin, thinking that he was limiting the damage. Aaron believed himself to be responsible for the sin of the Golden Calf; for the rest of his life, he strove to make up the damage.

    For ever since Aaron had become aware that through the construction of the Golden Calf he had brought about the transgression of Israel, it was his endeavor through the following course of life to atone for his sin. He would go from house to house, and whenever he found one who did not know how to recite his Shema', he taught him the Shema'; if one did not know how to pray he taught him how to pray; and if he found one who was not capable of penetrating into the study of the Torah, he initiated him into it. [634] He did not, however, consider his task restricted 'to establishing peace between God and man,' but strove to establish peace between the learned and the ignorant Israelites, among the scholars themselves, among the ignorant, and between man and wife. [635] Hence the people loved him very dearly, and rejoiced when they believed he had now attained a higher rank than Moses. (Legends of the Jews, "Preparing Aaron for his Impending Death," page 740)
How, then, could Aaron remain silent when he heard Moses refer to his brethren, his people as הַמֹּרִים - fools and rebels? He was the peacemaker! This was the way in which he strove to atone for his sin, his sin of inaction, or rather, of improper action!

And yet, when placed in the same situation, Aaron did not act. Once again he allowed events to take their course. Once again he did not truly intervene... He did not respond to Moses' words, did not defend the people as he ought to have done. If Aaron had truly understood the flaw, the problem with his actions when it came to the Golden Calf, he would not have remained silent. He would have spoken up; he would have argued with Moses, told him that he could not refer to the people in this manner.

The Midrash in the Yalkut Shimoni, TShS"D states that Moses was perturbed and questioned God: "I am guilty, but how is Aharon?" It seemed similar to a situation where a creditor comes to collect a debt and collects it, not only from the one who owes but also from his neighbor!

But Aaron did not defend himself. He remained silent. Silence is an attribute of Aaron, silence after the death of his sons, silence when he ought to have spoken, to have defended his people, a kind of silence, even, in the face of a people who desire to create an image that has been expressly forbidden them. Aaron accepted his punishment because he knew what had caused it; his eloquent silence is an admission of guilt.

You are correct, he seems to say. I ought to have acted. I ought to have acted then, to prevent the sin of the Golden Calf. I ought to have acted now, to prevent Moses from speaking ill of the Jews. I did not act. I thought that I had overcome this problem; I saw myself as peacemaker, the man who spoke to all and tried to help them. But in that decisive moment, I was not the peacemaker. I was only the bystander, caught once again in an untenable situation, faced once again with a choice- and again, I chose incorrectly.

This, then, is Aaron's fatal flaw: the failure to act. The failure to speak. The failure to stand up and oppose the will of an entire people, the failure to be a Joshua or Caleb. Or in contrast, the failure to oppose his own brother, the people's leader...Why is Aaron punished so harshly? Why does he deserve death? Because this was his second chance, this his chance to atone for his former sin. Aaron was supposed to prevent a sin, the angry words that Moses spoke. At the least, he was supposed to rebuke him, to challenge his assertion, to defend the people. But he remained silent...

1 comment:

Hank said...

You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink.