By Bex Stern Rosenblatt
This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11 – 34:35.
The problem with having your brother write your memoir is that he will likely make it all about himself, even when he’s writing your story. It is not necessarily your brother’s fault — he has been there for most of your life and you share so many life experiences that no one else could possibly understand. Sibling love and sibling rivalry are born of the same experiences. If you were writing his memoir, you are sure you’d do the same to him.
Much of the Book of Exodus is about Aaron. Most of what we hear about him goes something like this: “Moses and Aaron went/did/performed/heard/said.” Or: “Aaron should wear/sacrifice tunics/sashes/rams/goats.” Aaron either stands in Moses’ shadow or
receives strict rules of behavior from Moses. Moses is writing the book, after all. And how else would we portray our siblings?
There is one moment, though, when we meet Aaron without Moses’ interference. Moses has gone up Mount Sinai and is in the middle of receiving laboriously detailed lists of types of incense and rules for Shabbat. We leave him up on the mountain and meet Aaron and the people on their own terms down at the base of the mountain. The people tell Aaron, “Moses, the man who took us up from the land of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”
We have heard this missing brother trope before. We met it first in Genesis 4:9, when God asks Cain, “Where is Abel, your brother?” and Cain replies, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”
It weaves its way through all of the Genesis stories, from Jacob assuming Esau’s place to Leah assuming Rebecca’s place to Joseph’s brothers causing his disappearance. In each case, we learn that it is good and right to look out for our siblings, even if we think they are ravenous monsters, weak-eyed or daddy’s boys.
So here, in today’s story, the people tell Aaron his brother, Moses, is missing, and we hold our breath. I’m rooting for Aaron. I want him to make the right decision, to show his love for his brother. But we’ve also sat through chapter after chapter of Aaron playing second fiddle to Moses.
Aaron tells the people to gather their gold and then makes a golden calf, telling the people in Exodus 32:4, “These are your gods, Israel, who took you up from the land of Egypt.” The people have said that Moses, the man who took them up from Egypt, is gone. Aaron builds them a new Moses, a new, shiny figurehead who supposedly rescued them from Egypt. After all, he knows his brother, and he knows God. It was never Moses who did the rescuing. It was God who took them from Egypt, and Moses served God. The people, in choosing to equate Moses with God, have begun worshipping a false idol.
Aaron presents to the people a replacement Moses. He tells the nation the story of Moses that they want to hear. It is precisely what Moses has been doing to Aaron this whole time, presenting a version of Aaron for mass consumption, making Aaron into a figurehead. Here, the consequence is the golden calf, God’s anger and the killing of huge numbers of the Israelite people. Perhaps there was a better way to go. WJW
Bex Stern Rosenblatt is on faculty at The Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem and is based in Washington.