The Mishna's stamping of Aharon as a "lover and pursuer of peace" often eclipses the many other facets of Aharon's character and the significant role he played in leading the nation in both Egypt and the Wilderness. Aharon served as priest, prophet, spokesman, and political assistant, guiding the nation in both spiritual and mundane matters. He acts as Moshe's right-hand man, in charge of the nation when Moshe leaves, standing by Moshe when the nation complains, and helping him in an array of administrative tasks. Though Aharon is constantly in Moshe's shadow, his unique light shines through to illuminate and inspire the nation.
Aharon, however, is not without his challenges. He stumbles in relation to both Hashem and man as he errs with the Golden Calf and gossips about his brother. Somehow, though, he moves beyond his mistakes, repairing his relationships and achieving greatness. The page below will attempt to explore both Aharon's strengths and weaknesses, sharing insights into his life, leadership, and character.
When and why was Aharon chosen to serve as high priest? The directive to consecrate Aharon and his sons appears in Shemot 28:1, suggesting that they were selected then. However, Devarim 10:8 implies that both the Priests and Levites were chosen only in the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf. To confuse matters more, Shemuel I 2:27-28 suggests that the priests were chosen already in Egypt! [For a full discussion of the issue and how each approach deals with all the various verses, see Selection of the Priests and Levites.]
- Patriarchal period – According to Jubilees, Testament of Levi, and Targum Yerushalmi (Yonatan) the tribe of Levi was chosen already in the Patriarchal period to be Priests and Levites. Jubilees maintains that this was a reward for Levi's avenging of Dinah's honor in Shekhem. If so, Aharon inherited the position rather than meriting it on his own.
- In Egypt – Shemot Rabbah, in contrast, suggests that the appointment occurred in Egypt, and implies that it was the elevated character of specifically Moshe's family that merited the positions.1 If so, Aharon might have been a prominent figure in the nation, sacrificing and leading them in spiritual matters, even before Moshe was appointed at the Burning Bush.
- Prior to the Sin of the Calf – Abarbanel asserts that Aharon was appointed in the Wilderness period, prior to the Sin of the Calf, as the people prepared to build the Mishkan (Shemot 28). Aharon merited the priesthood because, with the exception of Moshe, no one else in Israel came close to his level of perfection and prophecy.
- After the Sin of the Calf – Many sources2 suggest that Aharon was first appointed after the sin. Considering that Aharon's actions in the incident appear blameworthy, this position seems counter-intuitive. According to Rashi, the entire purpose of the Mishkan was to provide proof that Hashem had indeed forgiven their deed.3 If so, perhaps choosing Aharon as priest was the ultimate sign of forgiveness. Perhaps, too, only someone who knew very well what it means to err and repent could possibly be chosen to help atone for others.
At what point did Aharon take on prophetic status? Did he have independent prophetic status even before Moshe?
In Shemuel I 2:27, Hashem tells the priest Eli, "הֲנִגְלֹה נִגְלֵיתִי אֶל בֵּית אָבִיךָ בִּהְיוֹתָם בְּמִצְרַיִם לְבֵית פַּרְעֹה," implying that Hashem had revealed himself to one of Eli's ancestors in Egypt. Most commentators assume that the verse is referring to Aharon, but differ regarding the prophecy he received and what this teaches about Aharon's role as a prophetic leader while still in Egypt:
- Independent prophet – Rashi and R"Y Kara claim that the prophecy referred to is that alluded to in Yechezkel 20:7, "אִישׁ שִׁקּוּצֵי עֵינָיו הַשְׁלִיכוּ וּבְגִלּוּלֵי מִצְרַיִם אַל תִּטַּמָּאוּ".4 According to them, then, Aharon acted as a spiritual guide to the nation even before Hashem revealed himself to Moshe at the Burning Bush, rebuking the nation for their idolatrous ways. R"Y Kara, following Shemot Rabbah,5 implies that this was not a one time event,6 and that initially, it was Aharon who was the main prophet and leader in Egypt.
- Prophesies with Moshe – Radak suggests that the verse in Shemuel is referring to all the prophecies that both Moshe and Aharon received in Egypt after the revelation at the Burning Bush (those related to the plagues and Exodus). If so, it is possible that Aharon never played an independent leadership role in Egypt and first began to prophesy when he was appointed to be Moshe's spokesman and assistant.7
In Shemot 4, when Moshe complains that he is "כְבַד פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן", Hashem tells him that this is of no import, for Aharon can speak in his stead and will act as Moshe's mouthpiece ("וְהָיָה הוּא יִהְיֶה לְּךָ לְפֶה"). Indeed, in Egypt, in his interactions with both the Israelites and Paroh, Aharon consistently accompanies Moshe, relaying Hashem's commands. It is not as clear, though, whether Aharon continued in this capacity throughout the forty years in the Wilderness: [See Moshe's Speech Impediment for further discussion.]
- Spokesperson only until the Exodus – According to several sources, after the Exodus, Aharon was no longer needed to speak on Moshe's behalf.8 Commentators disagree regarding what changed:
- Devarim Rabbah asserts that Moshe's physical disability was cured at the revelation at Mt. Sinai.9
- According to others, Moshe had no physical disability, but simply lacked fluency in Egyptian (Rashbam) or was not a skilled orator in general (Lekach Tov, Seforno). As this was mainly relevant only in Egypt when speaking to Paroh, after the Exodus, Moshe no longer needed Aharon's assistance
- Spokesperson until death – Ibn Ezra, in contrast, claims that despite the silence in the text, it can be assumed that Aharon (and Elazar after Aharon's death) continued to serve as Moshe's spokespersons throughout the forty years in the Wilderness.10
Aharon acted not only as Moshe's spokesman but also as his right hand assistant and second-in-command, standing in for Moshe when he was absent:
- Assistant and partner
- In Egypt, Aharon consistently accompanies Moshe, bringing several of the wonders and plagues including the tanin,11 blood, frogs and lice. N. Sarna12 suggests that this was intended to equalize the playing field, setting Moshe on par with Paroh. Just as Paroh had his magicians, Moshe (king of Israel) had his personal assistant.13
- When the nation fights Amalek (Shemot 17), Aharon does not join in the fighting but instead stays with Moshe to help him raise his hands.
- In the Wilderness, the people come to both Moshe and Aharon when complaining14 seeking halakhic advice,15 or reporting on completed missions.16
- Administrative substitute
- At Sinai, when Yitro arrives, Moshe invites Aharon (and the elders) to break bread with him (Shemot 18:12). R. D"Z Hoffmann explains that this meal was actually a political ceremony which accompanied the signing of a covenant between the Israelite nation and Yitro's clan. Since Moshe was a relative and thus had a conflict of interest, he appointed Aharon to stand in as his political representative. [See Yitro's Sacrifices and Eating Bread Before God and Yitro's Visit.]
- When Moshe ascends the mountain to get the tablets, he leaves Aharon (and Chur) in charge (Shemot 24).
"אוהב שלום ורודף שלום"
Hillel in Mishna Avot lauds Aharon for pursuing peace and bringing the nation close to Torah: "אוֹהֵב שָׁלוֹם וְרוֹדֵף שָׁלוֹם, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת וּמְקָרְבָן לַתּוֹרָה".17 Where does this image of Aharon come from?
- Avot DeRabbi Natan points to Malakhi 2:6-7: "בְּשָׁלוֹם וּבְמִישׁוֹר הָלַךְ אִתִּי וְרַבִּים הֵשִׁיב מֵעָוֺן, כִּי שִׂפְתֵי כֹהֵן יִשְׁמְרוּ דַעַת וְתוֹרָה יְבַקְשׁוּ מִפִּיהוּ". The verses connects the priests with both "שָׁלוֹם" and "תוֹרָה".18
- It is also possible that the image stems from the many verses which highlight the role of the priests as both teachers and judges.19 Their teaching serve to bring men close to Torah, while their judgments allow people to settle arguments and resume peaceful relations. Aharon, being the first and high priest, presumably set the standard for this task.
- Finally, Aharon's very position as priest, tasked with atoning for the people's sins and blessing them with peace, might have marked him as one who pursues peace (between man and God) and brings people back to Torah.
Aharon stands out as having the ability to wish the best for others and to be truly happy for their accomplishments and successes with no accompanying jealousy.
- In Shemot 4:14, Hashem tells Moshe how Aharon will react to Moshe's appointment: "וְרָאֲךָ וְשָׂמַח בְּלִבּוֹ". Being the older brother, it was possible that Aharon would be jealous of Moshe, but he harbored no ill will and was genuinely happy for him (see Rashi, Ibn Ezra, R"Y Bekhor Shor).
- It is perhaps this same trait which makes him the appropriate choice to bless the nation. He can sincerely wish good on others and not begrudge them Hashem's blessings.
In several instances in Torah, a simple reading of the text implies that Aharon might have sinned:
Sin of the Golden Calf
One of the most troubling aspects of the story of the Sin of the Golden Calf (Shemot 32) is the lead role that Aharon appears to play in the events. Is it possible that Aharon was involved in an idolatrous rite, or is it blasphemous to even ponder such a possibility? Though commentators universally attempt to defend Aharon and agree that he did not worship the calf as an alternative deity, they differ in how they understand and mitigate his wrongdoing: [For a full discussion of the episode, see Sin of the Golden Calf.]
- Delay tactics / test – According to Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer and Rashi, though the people themselves viewed the calf as alternative god, Aharon himself did not. All of his actions were aimed simply at delaying the people, hoping that Moshe would arrive before they sinned. R. Saadia, instead, defends Aharon by comparing him to Yehu20 who pretended to promote idolatry, but only in order to discover and eliminate those who were guilty of Baal worship.
- Inappropriate worship of Hashem – The Kuzari portrays Aharon as having positive, albeit misguided, intentions. The nation desired not an alternative god, but a tangible object which could represent Hashem and to whom they could direct their worship. Aharon erred only in not recognizing that all graven images are prohibited, even of Hashem Himself.
- Replacing of Moshe – According to R"Y Bekhor Shor, the calf was not connected to idolatry at all. Bereft of Moshe's leadership and his connection to the Divine, the people searched for an alternative to guide them in the wilderness. Aharon tried to placate them by providing a powerless leader whom they would abandon as soon as Moshe returned. Hashem's anger was aimed at avenging Moshe's honor, not His own.
Bemidbar 12 describes Miryam and Aharon's criticizing of Moshe's marriage to the Cushite woman, and Miryam's ensuing punishment. What led Miryam and Aharon to criticize their brother and how are we to evaluate their infraction? Was this malicious slander, idle chatter or simply poor judgment? [For elaboration, see Miryam's Critique of Moshe and his Cushite Marriage.]
- An attempt to help – The Sifre is perhaps the most extreme in its defense of Miryam and Aharon, viewing the siblings as simply trying to encourage the resumption of normal marital life between Moshe and Zipporah and having no spiteful intent whatsoever.
- Objection to perceived wrongdoing – R. Yosef Bekhor Shor maintains that the siblings were bothered by the fact that Moshe married a foreign woman of an uncircumcised nation and incorrectly assumed he was being vain and thinking that the women of Israel were not good enough for him. They erred in their evaluation, but this was not out of spite but true concern.
- Challenge to authority – Several modern commentators21 cast Miryam and Aharon in a a much more negative light, presenting them as actively challenging their brother's authority, questioning his worthiness to lead and viewing themselves as his equal.
Sin at Mei Merivah
For many readers, of all of Aharon's possible wrongdoings, his role in Mei Merivah appears to be the least problematic. After all, it is Moshe, not he, who plays the lead role in the episode and it is not even clear where Moshe himself goes wrong! Nonetheless, it is this deed for which Aharon is punished most severely,22 losing the opportunity to make it to the Promised Land. What was Aharon's transgression? [For elaboration, see Mei Merivah.]
- Lack of faith – According to Ramban and Seforno, even though only Moshe actively hit the rock, the decision to do so was a joint one and stemmed from the lack of faith of both Moshe and Aharon. Both doubted whether simply speaking to the rock would elicit a miracle.
- Desecration of Hashem's name - R. Yosef Albo blames Moshe and Aharon for running to the Tent of Meeting to consult with Hashem rather than immediately quelling the nation's murmurings by invoking a miracle on their own. This caused a lack of faith in one of the central tenets of Torah, a prophet's power to act above nature.
- Faulty leadership - The Avvat Nefesh and Minchah Belulah similarly pick up on Moshe and Aharon's flight to the tent of Meeting (an action shared by both brothers), but in contrast to R. Albo, they view it as a sign of cowardice, betraying the siblings' inability to stand up against the nation and respond to, or rebuke, them on their own.
- No Sin - Abarbanel claims that actually Aharon was not punished for his actions in Mei Merivah at all, but rather for his role in the Sin of the Golden Calf.
Perceptions by the Nation
As is true of many great leaders, Aharon was envied by some, but beloved by many:
Envied: The Rebellion of Korach
The story of Korach's rebellion clearly demonstrates that not all were happy with Aharon's appointment as priest. It is not clear, though, how widespread this feeling was, and whether the objection was to Aharon specifically or to the general limiting of the priesthood to one family: [See Korach's Rebellion for more.]
- Objection of Levites – R. Chananel maintains that the 250 rebels were all from the tribe of Levi. They, like Korach, were unsatisfied with merely "serving the priests" but rather aspired to be priests themselves. If so, it was not Aharon specifically whom the people opposed but rather the very existence of a distinct priestly class.
- Objection by Reuvenites – According to Rashi, the rebels were mainly from the tribe of Reuven.23 It is possible that the tribe as a whole felt that they deserved priestly status due to their ancestor being Yaakov's firstborn.24
- Objection by nobility – Hoil Moshe assumes that the 250 rebels were noblemen from all of the tribes, who questioned the monopoly on sacrificial service held by the priests. He claims that before the Sin of the Golden Calf, every individual Israelite had been allowed to sacrifice on private altars,25 and the people wanted to return to this status quo.
- Objection by laymen – It is also possible that lay Israelites objected to the choice of Aharon specifically, assuming that he was chosen only due to Moshe's nepotism and not because he was deserving.
Beloved: Mourning at Death
Bemidbar 20:29 describes the nation's reaction to Aharon's death, " וַיִּרְאוּ כׇּל הָעֵדָה כִּי גָוַע אַהֲרֹן וַיִּבְכּוּ אֶת אַהֲרֹן שְׁלֹשִׁים יוֹם כֹּל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל". Commentators note various unique aspects of the formulation, suggesting that the verse hints to how beloved Aharon was to the people and what they lost when he died:
- "כֹּל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל" – Avot DeRabbi Natan notes that the verse emphasizes that "all of Israel" mourned Aharon (whereas by Moshe it is written only "ויבכו בני ישראל את משה"), teaching how he had touched man, woman and child with his loving kindness and pursuit of peace between men.
- "וַיִּרְאוּ כׇּל הָעֵדָה" – Ralbag suggests that the seemingly extraneous words "וַיִּרְאוּ כׇּל הָעֵדָה כִּי גָוַע אַהֲרֹן" teach that with Aharon's death, the people recognized what they had just lost, a role model and teacher that consistently helped them better themselves. Bavli Rosh HaShanah, instead, suggest that the people "saw" that Aharon died because with his death the protective clouds of glory disappeared, paving the way for enemy attack.
Shemot 6:23 shares that Aharon married Elisheva b. Aminadav, the sister of Nachshon, but from Torah we know nothing else about the character of Elisheva or the marriage. Seder Olam Rabbah, though, point outs that Elisheva merited four relations of import: her husband was the high priest, her brother-in-law was a king, her brother was a prince and her children were lay priests.26
A loving brother? – See above that Hashem's words "וְרָאֲךָ וְשָׂמַח בְּלִבּוֹ" might come to emphasize Aharon's loving acceptance of Moshe's superior position. In contrast, see the opinion above which suggests that Aharon's critique of Moshe's marriage to the Cushite might have constituted a challenge to his authority and betrayed that he did not feel that Moshe was more worthy than he.
The Torah does not explicitly speak of Aharon's interactions with his sons or the nature of their relationship, but commentators have found some clues in the story of Nadav and Avihu and its aftermath:
- Nadav and Avihu's sin - According to some, the brothers' sin was motivated by their relationship with their father; they acted out of either a desire to honor him, or the opposite, from a desire to belittle him: [See Why Were Nadav and Avihu Killed for elaboration.]
- Honor - According to Hoil Moshe, due to Aharon's sin with the Golden Calf, he was not worthy of meriting a miracle on the eighth day of the Consecration Ceremony, necessitating Moshe's intervention and prayer. The brothers felt that this sent a message to the nation that only Moshe's service (and not their father's) was pleasing to God. As such, they decided to bring an unauthorized incense to prove that Aharon's family, too, was worthy of serving Hashem.
- Disrespect - Shadal, in contrast, attributes the brothers' actions to their dissatisfaction with being second to their father and a desire to be equally honored.27 Since they had not been assigned to perform any particular service, they took upon themselves one of the most prestigious rituals.