A New Midrash - Humor on the Parasha


A New Midrash - Humor on the Parasha


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Why Aaron didn't Die

Phil Cohen

He was having the vacation of all time up there on Mount Sinai: not an iota of stress, the unmistakable sense that everything was a-ok. He was spending time with the best friend a lawgiver could ever have, and Moses had never felt better. Even some chronic pain that had recently taken residence in his lower back had all but disappeared. Is it any wonder that, years later, so many hospitals would be named after this hidden locale in the middle of a desert?

In the future, thinkers with time on their hands would ponder the weighty meaning of those days atop Sinai, and ask difficult questions about the religious significance of nearly six weeks spent alone in the presence of the Creator. Notwithstanding the ruminations of future sages, Moses himself was thinking not one grave or particularly metaphysical thought. He could care less about the meaning of his human mind communing with the divine mind, and the epistemological implications of this fact. No indeedy. He was perfectly content being unreflective during his sojourn there, enjoying history’s most famous forty day vacation.

Oh yes. This was immeasurably more satisfying than facing that riffraff down there, those undisciplined masses he had helped shepherd across the sea into the desert and had brought to the foot of this mountain. Oh, don’t get me wrong. There had been extraordinary moments in the course of his leadership: the burning bush, confronting Pharaoh Time after time had been a hoot; leading that ragtag band of former slaves across the divided sea. Oh my, wasn’t that something! Hiking down onto the path that the sea had made for him and his people, walking in between the walls of water suspended on either side like jelly in a jar, with fish of all variety staring out at them mystified, then up and out of the sea! That was surely world class.

But then there was that water incident, and so many complaints, a constant barrage of murmuring, kvetching, his Eastern European descendants would call it, a chronic wah wah wah, we want, we want, we want, gimme gimme gimme gimme, that preoccupied and wearied Moses so much that lately, when among his people, he found himself yawning at the most inappropriate moments, such as when passing judgment on Sabbath stick gatherers. Being a liberator’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Oh, it’s steady work, all right, and one rarely has to worry about having one’s personal needs met. There’s always food on the table and a dollar in the bank. But the hours are terrible and the liberated tend to become just a trifle exasperating after the actual liberation’s grown cold. Oy!

But up here on the mountain talking with God about Law (not law, you understand, Law)—that was better even than the burning bush. The bush’s flames moved here and there; Law was solid as steel. The bush was one time only. The Law was forever. It was glorious having God for a companion twenty-four hours a day, for—how long had it been now?--for forty days. At one point Moses realized he hadn’t had a cup of coffee for ages and yet felt a clarity that lately he’d only been able to achieve from large daily doses of caffeine. But as always happens, it seems, the divine times were not to last. It came to a head on the fortieth morning. God and Moses were discussing the Jubilee year, the time when all things come to a stop and slaves are set free. Declare liberation throughout the land. Oh yes, this was Law at its best, the equalizing of all things human, the reduction of all human equations to a single spectacular common denominator. What a law to give to former slaves! How completely they would intuitively understand its inner truth! Through the very act of thinking the idea that the Law as Instruction would teach such a simple yet profound truth, Moses slipped into a state of bliss. Contemplating the theory behind shatnez, the law against mixing wool and flax, had also thrown Moses into a state of bliss. But this was by far a much better state of bliss. But strong bliss or weak bliss, bliss was by now a familiar, agreeable condition to Moses our teacher, our rabbi, who had spent the last forty days in dialogue with the Master of Dialogue.

In the midst of this blissfulness, Moses heard God’s voice boom as he had never heard it boom.

“Damn!” the voice cried so loud the birds all flew away. Moses jumped.

“Moses,” God said, in a tone angry and frightening. “Moses, your children are at it again.”

“My children?”

“Your children.”

“They’re mine when they bungle, and yours when they do something good, eh?”

“They’re yours most of the time”

“Thanks for the privilege.”

“You’re welcome.”

“What is it now?” Moses asked, a despondent feeling creeping over him, accompanied by that familiar feeling that destiny was once again taking a hand. “Seems they miss you down there,” said God with just a note of irony. “They miss you. A lot.”

“It’s good to be missed, oh God, though I hear something in your tone that tells me you don’t approve of how they are expressing their longing for my return,” said Moses.

“Well, let me put it to you this way,” said the Master of all creation. “I’ m not a great fan of gold sculpture.”

“What do you mean?”

“May I suggest that you go down and have a look?”

“I have a feeling the right answer to your question in fact gives me very little wiggle room.”

“You might say that.”

“I have a feeling I’m not going to like what I see.”

“You might say that.”

“I have a feeling that we’re saying goodbye to our private time.”

A pause.

“You might say that.”

So with more reluctance than most humans can imagine, Moses took his staff and the few other belongings he had brought with him (and how much do you really need when you’re off to visit your Maker?), and prepared for the descent to the desert.

“Moses,” said God.


“Aren’t you forgetting something?”

Moses thought for a moment. “Ah, yes,” he replied.

And Moses picked up the two tablets of the Law, a rather good summary of his time up here, and made his way down the mountain and returned to the desert.

At the foot of it he encountered Joshua. Joshua, a man of remarkable patience, had been waiting there for quite some time for his master’s return.

“Boss. It’s great to see you,” said Joshua. “I think we’re in big trouble.”

“What’s going on?”

“I’m not sure, Boss. All I can tell you is that for the last while the noise coming from camp has been wickedly loud.”

Moses sighed. “Then I guess we’ve got to check it out.”

“Right, Boss.”

Moses and Joshua rushed back to the camp where, with a little observation and a not inconsiderable amount of dismay, they quickly ascertained that the Israelites had constructed for themselves a golden bovine statue and were in the process of placing their minds and hearts at its inanimate disposal, resoundingly swearing loyalty to it, praying for it to dispense milk from its divine golden udders. “Milk. We want milk!” they cried out. “Milk. We need milk. Must have milk. Milk to drink. Milk for cakes. Milk for cookies. Milk for coffee. Milk for cheese. Milk for the babies. Give us milk, oh magnificent cow!” And together all the Israelites engaged in this preposterous activity (and there were more of them than Moses cared to count) sank to their knees, and, with hands stretched above their heads, in unison they prostrated themselves toward their lifeless master, uttering in unison a low mooing sound like so many head of afflicted livestock, punctuating the night air.

Oy, thought Moses. It’s come to this? Sadly he realized, yes, it has come to this. A cow! My people are worshipping a cow! An eagle—all right; a mountain lion--fine. Even a ram would have at least projected a noble and powerful image. But throwing yourself on the ground to a veal chop, even one made of precious metal--this compounded humiliation on top of aggravation. So. though a part of him wanted to laugh at his kinsmen immersed in the act of supplication to a baby steer, Moses knew it was action that was called for, forceful and decisive.

Well, dear reader, you almost certainly know what happened next: The tablets smashed, the statue destroyed, the perpetrators killed, the people cowed and repentant, and history altered. The People Israel would never be the same. Later that night, Moses found himself alone with his brother Aaron. Aaron was looking none too good for wear as he faced his brother over his deed. Aaron, you’ll recall, had with remarkable alacrity acquiesced to the people’s demand to build the statue.

But Moses wasn’t in the mood for further recriminations. He sat there rubbing his lower back, facing his older brother, downing a large cup of strong black coffee, his third of the evening, wondering.

“Aaron, “he began.


“I have a question. Maybe you can answer it, maybe you can’t.”

“Try me.”

“Well, frankly, and don’t get me wrong, I’m puzzled over why you’re alive. You helped build that thing and by rights you should be dead. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m happy you’re not dead. You’re my brother and I love you. But it seems to me you shouldn’t be here.”

Aaron answered, “At first, when the dust cleared and I was alive, I was surprised, too. But as I thought about it, I understood why.”


“You know, Moses. I’m not like you. I can speak well enough. There are priestly functions I perform well enough, far better than you, as a matter of fact. But the people just don’t listen to me the way they listen to you.”

“So what?”

“It wasn’t long after you went up the mountain that the complaining began. ‘Where’s your brother, Aaron? When’s he coming back, Aaron? Who’s gonna take care of us now, Aaron? Who’s gonna get us out of here, Aaron?’ After a while things started getting out of hand. They were getting rowdy and I was afraid that if I had to face them alone, it would be curtains for the sons and daughters of Jacob, Leah and Rachel.”

“All you had to do was hold out. You knew I was coming back.”

“Were you? After a while I started believing that maybe you weren’t. You never said, ‘Aaron, mind the store for a few weeks?’ And if you didn’t come back, who could blame you? These people are a handful I don’t mind telling you. If I were in your place, I’d think long and hard about how to arrange matters so I could stay up there. Every time I heard some thunder coming from the general direction of the mountain, I thought of you. I thought how wonderful it must be to be there alone with Him.”

“He’s not exactly a Him, Aaron. God is genderless.”

“Whatever. Anyway, when they demanded the statue, I figured that was as good a time as any to move things along and bring you back. I guess God agreed with me. I guess I did the right thing.”

It was then that Moses had one of his frequent moments of clarity that most of us are privileged to have, if we have one at all, once, maybe twice in a lifetime. He had been set up. The golden calf was a ruse to bring him back. It was so abundantly clear to him now that all he could do was sit motionless, amazed at the simplicity of the scheme. He had been set up. Without the golden calf, he may have elected to remain up there on the mountain, and no one would have the least rational argument to oppose his decision.

Aaron looked at Moses uncertainly. “I guess I did the right thing,” he repeated.

“I guess you did,” Moses sighed.

And off in the distance, if you listened carefully, you could hear God’s soft laughter riffling through the evening silence.


from the July 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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