Aaron, Moses’ brother, should have been executed for the sin of the Golden Calf. If not through the plague that ravished the nation (Exodus 32:35) “because of what Aaron did,” then possibly when Moses rallied the Levites (Exodus 32:17) to execute 3,000 of the Golden Calf participants; if not then, there was still another chance to Divinely off Aaron when Moses forced the Israelites to drink the ground-up Golden Calf-water mixture (Exodus 32:20). In a failed attempt at exculpating his actions, Aaron throws out the disclaimer: “you know the nation is evil (Exodus 32:32), only further validating his guilt. True, Moses interceded on Aaron’s behalf (Deuteronomy 9:20), but then again, Moses himself also rebuked Aaron (Exodus 32:21-4), as Aaron was guilty of breaching the Israelite religion’s most basic proscription. As a witness to these events, the charge of nepotism must have appeared even stronger than when Aaron and his family were handed the Israelites’ eternal priesthood. Everyone actively involved in the Sin of the golden Calf is killed, save Aaron.
As Aaron survives the incident, he remains a candidate for the position of Kohen Gadol. But, when we take a step back, the fact that Aaron becomes Kohen Gadol is surprising, to say the least. Rabbinic literature assumes that the Israelite firstborns were originally intended to serve as the Israelite priests, but because of their role in the Sin of the Golden Calf, this honor was wrested away from them and handed over to the Aaronic family and the Levites. Indeed, originally Moses along with the rest of the Israelite leadership sent the “Israelite youths” (who Rashi identifies as Israelite firstborns) to enter into a covenant with God on behalf of the twelve tribes (Exodus 24:5) and later the Torah states that God sanctified the firstborns when he did not kill them in Egypt (Numbers 8). Nonetheless, eventually the firstborns are swapped for the Levites (ibid), without a reason being offered. Ironically, there is not even a whisper of firstborns transgressing by Sin of the Golden Calf (despite Rabbinic literature’s pronouncement), while Aaron is rightfully fully chastised; and yet, firstborns lose their choice status, in lieu of the least likely candidate!
There is an ambiguity in most people’s memory of the narrative which stands at heart of this matter: when does Aaron become a Kohen? On the one hand, one sedra earlier (Exodus 28 & 29), the process prescribing the sanctification of the Aaronic family for priestly service is found. As this sedra appears before the Sin of the Golden Calf, if one assumes the Torah is written in chronological order, it would be impossible to defend the premise that the Aaronic family only became the priestly family after the Sin of the Golden Calf. On the other hand, if the Aaronic family only became the priestly caste right before the erection of the Tabernacle, then we revert to the question of why: why would they be deserving after Aaron sinned so heinously?!
The worship in the Tabernacle is the Israelite religion’s way to worship God. Most other forms of worship were completely unacceptable. But, the commentators argue over whether it had to be that way. Ramban argues that humans have a natural drive to serve God, and depending upon a society’s resources, humans will serve the Deity however they can. Ramban offers the example of Cain and Abel’s offerings. Never was Adam or his two sons Divinely ordered to serve or praise the Divine Being: Don’t eat some fruit: yes, serve God through sacrifices: never prescribed. Accordingly, when Cain and Abel decided to offer animal and fruit offerings (Genesis 4), they were tapping into an underlying psychological drive to worship God through physical means. Or maybe, they just felt like it was the right thing to do. Either way, the Ramban cites this example as proof that sacrifice and offerings always existed, and would have existed had the Israelites sinned by the Golden Calf or not.
Rashi, on the other hand, offers a different understanding of offerings. Rashi contends that the existence of the Tabernacle, of priesthood, prescribed offerings and times, etc. are a consequent of the Israelites failing by the Sin of the Golden Calf. Without that mistake, the Israelite firstborns would have been the sole priests for the nation. Every family would have its own personal priest, instead of one family owning all the priestly positions.
When one understands the fundamental reasons behind the two positions, it becomes clear that Rashi and Ramban are not that far apart from a worship perspective. Rashi would agree that Cain and Abel brought free will offerings. Indeed, even after the Tabernacle’s erection, free will offerings still existed. But, that should not undermine the obligatory elements of Temple service. Priesthood, in its ‘post-sin of the Golden Calf incarnation’ actually incorporates both elements: obligatory and free-will offerings. Originally, firstborns would have offered whatever offerings they chose, but after the sin of the Golden Calf, only the Aaronic family could offer these offerings on behalf of families. Unhindered religious expression is too dangerous a tool for most people, so it was taken away from the Israelites and handed over to one people. According to Rashi, this was the necessary consequent of the Sin of the Golden Calf. The sin was rooted in the people’s false belief that anyone can access God however they want (through whatever means they want), so God had to repudiate such a juvenile notion.
But why was Aaron chosen for this role? According to Rashi, the Tabernacle only existed as a consequence of the Sin of the Golden calf. As Aaron lead the Israelite towards the Sin of the Gold Calf, he should not have even been a candidate for the position. Really, he should’ve been killed with everyone else who sinned with the Golden Calf! In truth, the choice of Aaron as the High Priest was his punishment. He took it upon himself to lead the Israelites down the road of arbitrary (idolatrous) worship. Instead of insisting that the worship of God be underscored by basic monotheistic principles, he allowed for arbitrary worship to take place: worship that was authentic and genuine, but misguided. His punishment was that he would have to be on top of one of the most fussy, nitpicky and meticulous systems of worship ever prescribed. This is no coincidence. This is the exact punishment that one would expect for Aaron and his family considering his sin was creating an idolatrous vehicle for the worship of God.
So, the Aaronic Priesthood is a mixed blessing. It has both positive and negative elements. First, it took on all the positive elements of a human’s natural desire to serve. Through the priest, people can offer free will offerings. But, those offering are limited in scope, in times, in how they have to be eaten, killed, burnt, etc. These regulations are the punishment (or the tikun) for the misguided belief that caused the creation the Golden Calf.
When Aaron’s two sons (Leviticus 10:1) die because they offer an unauthorized offering in the Tabernacle, Aaron remains silent. He understood that he was originally spared by God for the sole reason to teach others that worship of God cannot be about themselves. Of course, he could not comment upon their deaths and took their deaths as a fact of life. It is not without irony that we note that Aaron’s firstborn, Nadav, died in this incident. It would be disingenuous had God permitted Aaron’s firstborn to serve in the Tabernacle in lieu of all the Israelite firstborns, considering that Nadav’s father, Aaron, is the one that brought about this change. He had to die.
(1) The only mention of this swapping process is found in Numbers (chapter 8) where it states: “[The Levites] are given to me from among the Israelites in place of the firstborns.” While Aaron is never singled out as earning his status in place of firstborns, the Torah states that God is “giving the Levites to Aaron and his sons” to work in the Tabernacle. Not only is he now High Priest, but all priests and Levite families are his admins!