Who doesn’t like good liars and clever bad guys?
We make movies and shows about them and secretly (or openly) root for them. We cheer for Danny Ocean and his casino-robbing band of thieves. We love Neal Caffrey on White Collar. There’s something racy and romantic about being so close to getting caught but getting away with it, or the thrill of getting away with something and having the chutzpah to actually do it.
But the bad liars and failed cons, well, no one glorifies them.
In this week’s parasha, Ki Tissa, we get one of the best worst lies of all time.
Forty days after Moses ascends Mount Sinai to be with God and receive the tablets of the Ten Commandments, the Israelites are restless. Fearing that Moses will not come back, they turn to Aaron and ask him to make a new god that they can worship.
Taking their golden earrings, Aaron melts the gold down and fashions a calf to serve as their new god. They then hold a festival to celebrate their new god and make sacrifices and have a party. (It’s true… read about it here.)
And it’s actually worse than you think.
When the Israelites behold their new golden calf, they refer to it as a god using the Hebrew word elohim, which is a more general term that can be interpreted as a god that is not THE God. But when Aaron refers to the calf, he uses the Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey tetragrammaton, which can only refer to God. So just in case there was any ambiguity about Aaron’s intentions, it’s clear that he made the calf to be GOD, not a god.
And then it gets even worse.
After Moses successfully negotiates with God to make sure that he doesn’t annihilate the Israelites right then and there, he comes down to deal with the situation. Confronting Aaron, he demands to know how he allowed this to happen.
Which brings us to the best worst lie of all time.
Commentators read the following text as Aaron trying to convince Moses that he had no choice, and that he was afraid of the people’s mob mentality, when he delivers this amazing the-cat-ate-my-homework line:
“They said to me, ‘Make us a god to lead us for that man Moses, who brought us out of Egypt- we do not know what has happened to him.’ So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off!’ They gave it to me and I hurled it into the fire and out came this calf!” (Exodus 32:23-24)
Um, ok. A molten calf that shaped and molded itself? Not so much.
Biblical scholars have debated this one for a while, and there’s a compelling case to be made about the documentary hypothesis and a particular author trying to paint Aaron in a bad light centuries after this event took place, but that’s a story for another time.
For this Shabbat, just revel in this worst of all excuses, and laugh. It’s hard to feel bad for Aaron, and compared with the thrill we feel when we cheer for the quasi-bad guys on TV and in the movies he is a relatively unsympathetic figure.
For a deeper discussion of the documentary hypothesis, make sure to read this excellent piece by Rabbis Hamilton and Lerner from earlier this week.
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