Parashat Ki Tisa contains the famous story of Bnei Yisrael creating an Eigel HaZahav (golden calf) at the base of Har Sinai. The entire story is difficult to explain, but perhaps the most perplexing part of it is the role of Aharon HaKohein. According to an explicit reading of the Torah, it is Aharon, the brother of Moshe Rabbeinu and future Kohein Gadol of Bnei Yisrael, who is approached by the people to make an idol, who tells the people to bring gold, who builds an altar for the idol, and who creates a festival the next day. After the fact, Moshe criticizes Aharon for his actions, but it does not appear that Aharon is ever punished for them.
Is Aharon forgiven for his role in the Eigel? If he is, why? And if he is not forgiven, why is he not punished?
In order to answer this question, we will examine an analogous situation to that of Aharon: the dilemma of King Yarovam ben Nevat when he splits the northern kingdom of Yisrael from the southern kingdom of Yehudah. At first glance, Yarovam does not seem at all analogous to Aharon, as Yarovam is regarded as one of the worst Jews ever (see Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:2). Yet we shall see that at the beginning of his kingship, Yarovam shares some remarkable traits with Aharon.
Yarovam ben Nevat has a unique character arc in Sefer Melachim. King Shlomo, impressed by Yarovam’s work ethic, appoints him over all the forced labor of Shevet Yosef. Then Yarovam rebels against Shlomo under unclear circumstances and is chosen by God to replace the Davidic dynasty as king of Israel (Melachim I 11:26-39). After Shlomo dies, Yarovam demands that Shlomo’s son Rechavam lower taxes, but when Rechavam refuses, Yarovam takes control of the northern ten Shevatim, creates his own priests and holiday (Melachim I 12:2-33), and becomes one of the worst kings Yisrael ever had.
In order to compare Yarovam to Aharon, it is essential to first understand why Yarovam rebels against Shlomo and what merit he has to be chosen by God as king in the first place.
The Navi tells us precious little about the reason for Yarovam’s rebellion against Shlomo, only that Yarovam rebels because Shlomo builds the “Millo, closing the breaches of the City of David” (Melachim I 11:27). The Gemara (Sanhedrin 101b) explains that the Millo is a section of the wall of the City of David that Shlomo builds in order to decrease the number of entrances to the City, allowing his wife, the princess of Egypt, to charge an entry toll.
Why does this bother Yarovam so much? Perhaps the answer stems from Yarovam’s job as manager of the forced labor of Shevet Yosef. Since Shlomo’s forced laborers consist primarily of non-Israelites that Bnei Yisrael were unable to eradicate from the land (9:21), a major source of Yarovam’s workers would be the city of Gezer, which is located in the land of Yosef and is populated by Canaanites whom Shevet Yosef was unable to wipe out but was able to enslave (see Yehoshua 16:10). Or at least it was populated by Canaanites, until the Egyptian princess comes along. As a dowry to Shlomo on behalf of his daughter, the Pharaoh of Egypt conquers Gezer, kills all the Canaanites that live there, and sets the city ablaze (Melachim I 9:16).
Shlomo may see this as a favor, but to Yarovam ben Nevat, it is a disaster on two accounts. First, many of his workers are now dead. And second, it shows how vulnerable his land is to attack. From Yarovam’s point of view, Shlomo needs to rebuild Gezer as quickly as possible. But Shlomo takes his sweet time, using forced labor to build the Beit HaMikdash, royal palace, and wall of Yerushalayim, and to fortify the cities of Chatzor and Megido, before finally rebuilding Gezer (9:15). But the most infuriating thing that Shlomo builds before rebuilding Gezer is the Millo, built with forced labor for the sole purpose of helping the daughter of the man who destroyed Gezer in the first place.
Along the same lines, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 101b) notes that the reason Yarovam merits the throne is that he criticizes Shlomo for prioritizing his Egyptian wife’s desires over the people’s need for easy access to the City of David and the Beit HaMikdash within.
It is now clear who Yarovam is before his rise to royalty—he is a self-made man who was born into obscurity with no father but rises to prosperity through hard work. He becomes a popular leader who seems to have plenty of economic and political knowledge and a strong sense of right and wrong. This is exactly the type of man who should be Shlomo HaMelech’s successor, and the prophet Achiyah HaShiloni anoints Yarovam as such.
It now seems much more sensible to draw a comparison between Yarovam ben Nevat and Aharon HaKohen. Both men are popular leaders who protest to the ruling power (Pharaoh for Aharon; Rechavam for Yarovam) because their people are subjected to too much forced labor. And both men are put in difficult situations where they are forced to choose between following Halachah and maintaining peace in the nation.
Aharon’s situation occurs when Bnei Yisrael, having lost faith that Moshe will return from Har Sinai, approach Aharon and demand that he create a replacement god for them. According to the Midrash, Bnei Yisrael get so out of control that they murder Chur, Aharon’s right-hand man, when he refuses to acquiesce to their demands ( VaYikra Rabbah 10:3).
Yarovam’s situation is not identical, but it shares some striking similarities. The ten northern tribes lose faith in the leadership of Rechavam and approach Yarovam to replace Rechavam as their king. The northern tribes get so out of control that they murder Adoram, Rechavam’s tax collector (Melachim I 12:18). Yarovam feels that if he does not drastically differentiate his kingdom from that of Rechavam, he will be the next one killed (Melachim I 12:27).
At this point, I believe that Yarovam, recognizing the dire nature of his situation, looks to the Chamishah Chumshei Torah for a precedent—and he finds one. Following the paradigm set forth by Aharon, Yarovam builds golden calves for the people to worship, referring to them as “your god, Israel, who brought you out of Egypt” (Melachim I 12:28)—a verbatim quote of what Bnei Yisrael said about the original Eigel HaZahav (Shemot 32:4). Yarovam brings the incense-offering himself on his altar (Melachim I 13:1), just as Aharon once did in the Mishkan. He declares a new holiday (Melachim I 12:32), just as Aharon did by the Eigel (Shemot 32:5). Yarovam even names his sons Nadav and Aviyah (see Melachim I 14:20 and 14:1), names nearly identical to those of Aharon’s first two sons, Nadav and Avihu.
But Yarovam goes too far. In his paranoia, he doesn’t realize the differences between Aharon’s situation and his own, and he doesn’t recognize the subtle ways Aharon tried to delay the people as long as he could. Aharon was forced by the people’s demands to create an idol, and if he refused, he would have been killed like Chur. Yarovam is also dealing with an angry mass of people, but they are angry at Rechavam, not at him, and nobody even suggests worshipping idols before Yarovam decides to build them. To delay the people, Aharon asked them for gold, assuming that they would be reluctant to give it, and he called the festival for the following day in the hope that the fervor would die down. Yarovam shows no such hesitation. These are the first mistakes of Yarovam, beginning his downward spiral.
But the true difference between Aharon and Yarovam is what happens next, when they are confronted about their sins. When Moshe accuses Aharon of bringing sin upon the people, Aharon explains the situation and honestly recounts his role in the Eigel. Aharon accepts responsibility for doing what he did, and he is therefore remembered as one of the greatest Jews ever. Yarovam is a completely different story. When a man of God confronts Yarovam, saying that his non-Levite priests will be killed and his altar broken as a result of his sin, Yarovam lashes out, commanding that the man be seized (Melachim I 13:4). Yarovam does not explain the situation, nor does he recount what he did. He takes no responsibility for his actions and is therefore not forgiven for them.
This sad irony of Yarovam is highlighted in the last story in Tanach about him. Aviyah ben Rechavam, king of Yehudah, stands on a mountain and denounces Yarovam by pointing out one specific fact: “You banished the Kohanim, sons of Aharon, and the Leviyim … but we have not abandoned Hashem, and the Kohanim, sons of Aharon, and the Leviyim serve” (Divrei HaYamim II 13:9-10). Perhaps Aviyah chooses this specific insult because he understands the irony—Yarovam tried so hard to emulate Aharon HaKohein, but because of his inability to admit his own wrongdoing, he ends up exiling Aharon’s own descendants.
We can learn a powerful lesson from Yarovam ben Nevat and Aharon HaKohein. Hashem is willing to forgive one-time sins, especially sins that result from difficult situations, because even the greatest people are not perfect. But what separates good people like Aharon from chronic sinners like Yarovam is the ability to accept responsibility for one’s actions, to put those actions in the rearview mirror, and to continue to live life as it is meant to be lived.
I am indebted to Rabbi Neil Winkler for pointing out this specific connection as well as for introducing me to the general patterns of similarity between Yarovam and Aharon.