The Virtues of Moses and Aaron in Light of the Evil Inclination’s Tricks
Commenting on the verse, “He took it…and fashioned it into a molten calf” (Exodus 32:4), Rashi cites the Midrash (Tanhuma, Ki Tisa 11) and explains that the Egyptian magicians from the mixed multitude practiced their witchcraft to fashion the calf. Rashi continues and states: “Some say that Michah was there…. He had in his hand an amulet and a plate onto which Moses had written: ‘Arise ox! Arise ox!’ with which to bring up Joseph’s casket from the Nile, and he [Michah] threw it into the melting pot and out came the calf.”
We may raise three questions concerning this Midrash:
1. Why did Moses write, “Arise ox! Arise ox!” on the plate? He could have simply recited this phrase, which would have certainly prevented the sin of the golden calf. Why did he write that phrase – which relates to Joseph, as it is written: “His firstling ox, majesty is his” (Deuteronomy 33:17) – instead of “Arise Joseph”?
2. If it was the mixed multitude (or the gold plate) that fashioned the calf, why did Moses ask Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you brought a grievous sin upon it” (Exodus 32:21)? Furthermore, why did the Children of Israel ask Aaron to “make for us gods that will go before us” (v.1), since in any case it was the gold plate that was going to do everything?
3. Our Sages teach that the Satan had shown the Children of Israel the casket of Moses being carried in Heaven by the angels (Shabbat 89a). How could he deceive them in that way? The Children of Israel clearly knew how to distinguish the angels – those from Mount Sinai, who set crowns on their heads (Shabbat 88a) – from the Satan. We therefore return to our question: How can we imagine that they reached such a state, after having witnessed so many miracles in Egypt and by the sea?
Let us recall that Joseph had made the Children of Israel swear to “bring up my bones from here with you” (Exodus 13:19), and while they were occupied gathering the spoils of Egypt, Moses took responsibility for this mitzvah in order that their departure from Egypt not be delayed (Shemot Rabba 20:19). Now as we have seen, the Nile was worshipped by the Egyptians and Pharaoh (ibid. 9:9), and he “refused to allow the bones of Joseph to be pulled up from there, and he even claimed that the Children of Israel were not worthy of being delivered because they had already breached the forty-ninth gate of impurity” (Zohar, Yitro 39a).
Yet in his wisdom, Moses seized a plate of gold by which he could communicate directly with Joseph, informing him that serious accusations had been brought against Israel and that if they delayed in leaving Egypt because they could not find his remains, they were capable of breaching the fiftieth gate of impurity. Moses therefore asked Joseph to do everything for his remains to arise from the river before it was too late. The holiness of Joseph ended up conquering the Nile and the ministering angel of Egypt, for the holiness of a Tzaddik surpasses nature. As the Talmud teaches, “Tzaddikim are more powerful after death than in life” (Chullin 7b).
Because of Joseph’s casket, Moses was also going to vanquish the Sea of Reeds. Commenting on the verse, “What ails you, O sea, that you flee?” (Psalms 114:5), the Sages teach that when the Sea of Reeds saw the casket of Joseph, it allowed the Children of Israel to pass through. The Egyptian’s ministering angel had claimed before the Holy One, blessed be He, that just as the Egyptians were idolaters, so too were the Children of Israel (Zohar II:170b). It had therefore refused to allow the Children of Israel to cross the Sea of Reeds. However upon seeing the casket of Joseph, and remembering how it had arisen despite the opposition of the Nile, the sea turned back and split.
No doubt Moses knew that it was dangerous to write something on the plate, for someone was capable of using it improperly (which, as it turned out, is what exactly what happened). This is because the forces of evil draw their strength from holiness (Zohar II:201b; III:119b). Moses nevertheless had to write something on the plate, for time was pressing and he had to consider the spiritual future of the Jewish people. Otherwise, they risked breaching the fiftieth gate of impurity, from which there was no escape. He therefore wrote, “Arise ox” instead of “Arise Joseph” to lessen any potential damage. If he had inscribed Joseph’s name on the plate, it would have been the figure of a man that would have emerged from the melting pot, a figure that would have spoken the same language as the Children of Israel and shared the same traits as they, commanding them to kill Moses and Aaron. In such a case, the Children of Israel would have no doubt obeyed it, and their ensuing punishment would have be extremely grave, perhaps (G-d forbid) even fatal. However “the wise man has eyes in his head” (Ecclesiastes 2:14), and even at a time of intense pressure, Moses was perceptive enough to only inscribe, “Arise ox” (alluding to Joseph), to diminish any potential damage, as we noted earlier.
Thus if the mixed multitude asked Aaron to “make for us gods that will go before us” (Exodus 32:1), it was because they wanted him to use his holiness to make them a man, not an ox. They wanted Aaron to concentrate on the name of Joseph/ox, who governed the entire land of Egypt (Genesis 42:6) and the entire world. They wanted him to make a man emerge from the melting pot, a man devoid of mind and soul, capable of governing the world by the power of kelipah (impurity). At Aaron’s request, they removed the golden rings that hung from the ears of their wives (Exodus 32:2). The mixed multitude knew that with Aaron’s help and that of the plate, they could fashion an idol and rebel against G-d, winning the Children of Israel over to their side before Moses could descend from the mountain.
It is written, “For this man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt – we do not know what [mah] became of him” (v.1). The mixed multitude claimed that because he was so humble, they did not know him. They said that in ascending to heaven, Moses turned into a god [recall that mah has the same numerical value as the Holy Name, the Tetragrammaton, with the addition of the Alephines]. They therefore claimed that they needed a god to lead them, even if it was inferior to him.
Upon seeing this catastrophe, however, Aaron begged G-d that they not obtain the figure of a man, nor that of an ox, but rather of a calf. Because of Aaron’s prayer, a different inscription was made on the plate. Thus in the final analysis, it was not Aaron who fashioned the golden calf. King David wrote, “They made a calf in Horeb…they exchanged their Glory for the likeness of a grass-eating ox” (Psalms 106:19-20). What did they end up making, a calf or an ox? The “mold” was that of an ox, but a small calf emerged from the fire to lessen the sin of those who fashioned it.
From here we see the holiness of Aaron, who despite the death of Hur – who was slaughtered before him (Tanhuma, Ki Tisa 19) – did not fear the crowd. Instead, Aaron implored G-d to make a calf emerge from the fire, not the figure of a man or an ox.
“What [mah] did this people do to you” (Exodus 32:21). The people wanted you to make them divine beings, gods (the numerical value of which is 92, twice that of mah [plus one for each mah]) in place of the Holy One, blessed be He, Who said: “I am the L-RD your G-d” (Exodus 20:2). What suffering did you endure to listen to this!
Aaron replied to Moses, “You know that the people is disposed toward evil” (ibid. 32:22). “You know this people through your spirit of holiness [see Keli Yakar]. You know that they are always thinking of evil.” In the end, however, it was Moses and Aaron who triumphed over the evil inclination, which had pushed the Children of Israel to commit the sin of the golden calf.
From here we see the power of the evil inclination, which is made of fire (Zohar I:80a) and lurks between the two entrances of man’s heart (Berachot 61a). It spares no effort in distancing a man from the path of righteousness and proving to him that it only wants the truth and what is best for him. As we saw earlier, the Children of Israel could easily identify the features of true angels, yet despite everything the evil inclination succeeded in persuading them that what they had seen in Heaven was actually Moses’ casket.
A fine thread separates truth from falsehood, and we must exert a tremendous effort to perceive it. It can completely cover itself with a cloak of falsehood, and only with G-d help can we distinguish between the two. If the Generation of Knowledge was deceived, what can we say?
All this was brought about by the Children of Israel’s impatience. If they had not set a deadline for Moses to descend from Heaven, they would not have ended up sinning. Yet because they did not want to wait for even a day (Shabbat 89a), the evil inclination found a tiny opening and made its way into their hearts unimpeded. One sin brings about another (Perkei Avoth 4:2), and they ended up rebelling against G-d’s commandment.
This beginning was thus already bad, as it is written: “Moses saw the people, that it was exposed, for Aaron phera’o [had exposed them] to disgrace among those who rise up against them” (Exodus 32:25). The faults of the people were predictably lemaphrea. As soon as Moses ascended to Heaven, they acted incorrectly by not waiting for him to descend.
Let us therefore not limit ourselves in our Torah study. Let us contemplate it day and night, speaking of it at home, while away, when going to sleep, and upon awaking. However let us also think of our daily bread, for “if there is no flour, there is no Torah” (Perkei Avoth 3:17). Nevertheless, the main thing is prayer and diligent Torah study, which will lead us to the highest levels.