ומה ראה שיגדל לאהרן ולבניו לקדש אותם א"ר מני דשאב ור' יהושע דסכנין בשם רבי לוי בשעה שבקשו ישראל לעשות אותו מעשה אמרו לאהרן קום עשה לנו אלהים, עמד חור בן כלב וגער בהן מיד עמדו עליו והרגוהו ראה אהרן ונתיירא מעצמו שנאמר (שמות לב) וירא אהרן ויבן מזבח לפניו הוי קורא בו ויירא אהרן ויבן מזבח לפניו… וירא אהרן ויבן מזבח מיד נטל שם טס נזם של זהב והשליכו לאור שנאמר ואשליכהו באש ויצא העגל הזה, והיה אהרן מתירא שמא יש בלבו של הקב"ה עליו כלום לפיכך אמר הקב"ה למשה וזה הדבר אשר תעשה להם לקדש אותם לכהן לי לרומם ולגדל לאהרן ולבניו בכהונה גדולה לפי שגלוי וידוע לפניו שלא עשה אהרן אלא מיראה ולפיכך הודיעם שאין בלבו של הקב"ה עליו כלום ולקח פר אחד פר לכפר על העגל שהוא פר, אילים שנים כנגד שני בניו שעתידין למות שכל בניו ראוין למות שנאמר (דברים ט) ובאהרן התאנף ה' מאוד להשמידו אין להשמידו אלא לשון כלוי בנים שנא' (עמוס ב) ואשמיד פריו ממעל ושרשיו מתחת, כיון שנתפלל משה עליו דכתיב ואתפלל גם בעד אהרן מתו שנים ונשתיירו שנים.
What did Gd see that He elevated Aharon and his sons to sanctify them? R Mani of Shaab and R Yehoshua or Sakhnin said in the name of R Levi: At the time that Israel requested to make that deed [the Calf], they told Aharon, “Arise and make us a god.” Hur the son of Caleb stood and rebuked them. Immediately, they mobbed him and killed him. Aharon saw and was scared for his life, as it says “Aharon saw [Vayar] and built an altar before him.” It should say “Aharon was scared [Vayirah] and built an altar before him.” When Aharon was afraid and built an altar, he immediately placed there jewelry and cast it into a fire, as it said “I threw it in the fire, and this Calf emerged.” And behold Aharon was frightened, for perhaps it entered Gd’s mind to have a complaint with him. Therefore Gd told Moshe “This is the manner which you should do to them to sanctify them to serve me,” to elevate Aharon and his sons and raise them up in the priesthood, for it was entirely obvious to Him that Aharon only acted out of fear, and therefore he wanted to make known to them that He had no claim against Aharon in His heart. “Take a bull,” a bull to atone for the Calf. Two rams for the two sons who would die, for all his children were worthy of death, as it says “Also, Gd was very furious at Aharon to destroy him”, and the word “destruction” is not used save with regard to the death of children, as it says “I destroyed his fruit from above, and his roots from below.” Since Moshe prayed on his behalf, as it say “I also prayed for Aharon,” two died, and two lived. — Tanhuma Tetzave
One of the most perplexing things about the Golden Calf is how Aharon of all people would be involved in making it. If we could convince ourselves that the righteous Aharon would do such a thing, how is it that he was still appointed the High Priest after the fact? So unlikely was this that Ibn Ezra writes some people were convinced that Moshe’s brother could not possibly be the same Aharon as the man who built the Golden Calf. It must be a case of two very different people sharing a name. But obviously, the two Aharons are the same person, so the question remains. Even if he acted out of fear, one is never allowed to build an idol out of fear. But Aharon seemingly does. Further, Moshe says in Devarim, after Aharon had died, that Gd was indeed furious with Aharon over the incident. Yet, there is no recorded punishment for the act. Is there anything that can explain these disparate facts.
The Tanhuma cited above reflects this dichotomy. First it asserts that Gd decreed Aharon blameless and always held he was, and He proved it by appointing Aharon High Priest. But then it immediately say that Gd indeed blamed Aharon exceedingly. Not only did Aharon himself need an atoning sacrifice when he became High Priest, but his two sons even died to punish him. So was Gd angry at Aharon or not? The Midrash makes no attempt to resolve this contradiction.
The commentators take several approaches to the matter. According to Saadia Gaon, Aharon knew that some of the people were drawn to idolatry, but he sought to allow them to actualize their desire in order to root them out. Shadal further suggests that declaring a party served to catch the sinners off guard and allowed Moshe to destroy them when he came back down the Mount. This is indeed what happened. Saadia suggests that Gd was still angry at Aharon because he waited for Moshe before striking. He should have been more forceful in rooting out evil and taken the initiative himself.
Ibn Ezra and Ramban suggest that Aharon originally thought something productive might come out of the affair. The people were worried that Moshe had died and wasn’t coming back. Therefore, they wanted Aharon to create a symbol to go before them and connect them to Gd. He was hoping that indeed people would worship Heaven on the altar he built. But inevitably, people came to worship the calf directly, and he was the person responsible for it.
Abarbanel suggests something similar. But he says that Aharon’s intention never was to build them something to worship. It was not even to build them a charm or amulet they could use as a symbol of devotion. Rather, he thought that if the people saw the formless mass of gold, and then they saw him slowly chisel a tiny calf out of it, and then erect it, that people would realize the ridiculousness of their request. This unliving thing could not possibly replace Moshe, nor could anything like it have played any part in bringing them out of Egypt. But regardless, there were people who did stray and who were convinced it had power.
The common theme seems to be that Aharon acted to the best of his ability to turn the people away from sin, yet things did not turn out the way he intended. He wasn’t able to deal with the crisis that developed until Moshe came down the mountain. He seemed to have resigned things to fate in the end.
In Aharon’s defense, he was perhaps more prone to despair here than other prophets would be. He told Moshe they both knew the people was infused with evil. Aharon perhaps had firsthand experience of this. Yehezkiel Chapter 20 reports that Gd had sent prophets in Egypt to rebuke the people there and get them to improve. But the people refused and clung to idols all the more. Radak infers that these prophets were Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam. As Moshe didn’t arrive back in Egypt until the Plagues and Exodus, it would have been Aharon and Miriam who experienced the brunt of failure. Perhaps at seeing the people sin again even after the Exodus and Sinai, and having even helped them build the idol this time, Aharon reflected back to the earlier burnout and gave in to despair.
However, he fell to despair, it may explain Gd’s reaction to him. Aharon’s thoughts had always been pure, and everything he did, he did with the desire to help the people and contain the situation. Since his thoughts were directed to Heaven, he deserved to remain High Priest. But in the end, he threw in the towel and was afraid to take decisive action. He let the people continue to escalate the sins, and he stopped trying to contain things. For that reason, Gd was angry.
Perhaps that is what the Tanhuma is saying. Gd never had any doubts that Aharon was loyal. But Aharon himself had such doubts, and he gave in and allowed things to spiral out of control. Therefore, Gd wanted to prove to Aharon that he knew Aharon was loyal all along, even if Aharon himself had lost faith. That he did by still making him the High Priest after the fact. But Gd also made his fury known. He was angry that Aharon had given into despair, that he had done nothing once the Calf was built. Aharon apparently did get this message. His defining characteristic as High Priest was as a peacemaker and a man who could bring people back to the proper path. That he could only do because he never lost faith in anyone including himself, no how far they strayed.
We often act like Aharon. We have the best of intentions, but sometimes our attempts to make things better actually makes things worse. When that happens, we assume the worst in ourselves. We stop trying. But it is only when we do give into despair that we really allow the worst in ourselves.