For centuries, biblical commentators have examined the incident of the Golden Calf wondering why, when after the Jewish people successfully left Egypt and moved towards freedom, the people were so eager to donate their jewels to build an idol. It just doesn’t add up. Many commentators, therefore, blame Aaron, not the Israelites, for the sin of the Golden Calf. After all, isn’t his sin is so great that it negates him the opportunity to enter the Promised Land? They claim that as a leader, he should have known better. He could and should have done much more in preventing the building of an idol.
So, let's consider that it was indeed Aaron's responsibility and his fault, and it is he who truly brought idol worship to the people. Why then is his punishment not more severe? After all, among the three cardinal Jewish sins for which the penalty is death, idolatry stands first, as the Talmud tells us in Pesachim 25A. Moreover, regarding the death of Nadav and Avihu, their major offense seems to have been that they dared to offer a spontaneous offering of their own design to G-d, as an alternative to the specific sacrifices designated by the Torah. So, If they died for their offense, one which was not intended as an alternative to God, but as a way of reaching closer to God, wouldn’t it make sense to question why is it that Aaron is not accused for having committed a greater offense – the sin of idolatry?
Some commentators explain that Aaron's sin was not one of idol worship, but of failure to calm the fears of the people. Instead, in an overly compromising act, he indulged idolatry for the sake of peace. Both the Bechor Shor and Chizkuni understand that the function of the golden calf was to replace Moses as the leader of Israel. Aaron, they say, was concerned about the power struggle that would surely occur upon Moshes' return from the mountain and was that it would lead to a division amongst the people. So, to avoid conflict and to avoid betraying Moshe he decided to create a harmless figurehead just to keep them busy, and which could be disposed of with little opposition when Moshe would return.
Still other commentators read Aaron's actions very differently, explaining that he did not simply build the Golden Calf. Rather, they say, Aaron really intended to act for the sake of Heaven. Rashi declares that Aaron actually did everything he could to avoid the deed. Firstly, he points out that Aaron asks the people to “Take off your gold rings that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters and bring them to me” (Exodus 32:2). Rashi imagines Aaron saying to himself, 'The women and the children are protective of their jewelry, perhaps the matter will be delayed, and in the meantime Moshe will return.' Rashi further explains quoting the Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah, that Aaron first built the altar before the calf, on his own, dragging out the process – another delay tactic. Finally, Rashi points out that the reason Aaron declares 'Tomorrow shall be a festival of the Lord' (32:5) to mean not today, giving Moses yet more time to return.
So, in the final examination, we see Aaron engaging in one delay tactic after another, all designed to give Moshe enough time to return and re-assume his leadership. We see once again Aaron’s personification as a man of peace and compromise.