“The Devil Made Me Do It—Leaders Need to Take Responsibility for their Actions”
By Dr. Joel Gereboff, AJRCA Professor of Bible and Jewish History
When I was a teenager, I remember listening to the comedian Flip Wilson playing the character of Geraldine. Geraldine was a preacher’s wife who frequently did things not to her husband’s liking. She would seek to exonerate herself or at least account for her actions by proclaiming, “The Devil Made Me Do It.” I never thought much of the expression or of its origins, as the comedy itself was engaging. I came to learn that Geraldine’s pronouncement made perfect sense for her character as the notion of the Devil causing people to “sin” drew upon the Christian interpretation that the serpent in the Garden of Eden was in fact the Devil. Eve sought to absolve herself of her action of eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge by stating, “The serpent (i.e. the Devil) made me do it.”
Jewish tradition has not interpreted the story of the Garden in this way, but to the surprise of many Jews, there is a rich notion of Satan in a variety of Jewish texts. Generally, though some phases of Jewish mysticism may be an exception here, Satan is seen as a member of the divine court whose mission, understood to be authorized by God, is to tempt humans and to see whether they are able to resist sinning, or as in the case of Job, curse God. In the end, of course, Satan does not do evil on his own, but negative actions, or sins, can be due to the failure of humans to resist these temptations.
One aspect of the story of the sin of the Golden Calf that jumps out for an explanation is why Aaron seems not to be punished for his role in the incident. It is after all Aaron who upon being confronted by the Israelites with a demand, “Up, make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him,” responds by suggesting, ”Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me.” The Israelites immediately take up his suggestions and Aaron proceeds to fashion them into a molten calf. Upon seeing the calf, the Israelites exclaim, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” The text then reports that, “When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation, and said: ‘To-morrow shall be a feast to the LORD.’” The next day, the Israelites in fact make sacrifices which in turn they ate, and they drank and made merry. When Moses eventually descends Mt. Sinai, and after having in his anger smashed the two tablets upon which were written the Ten Commandments engraved by the finger of God, he confronts Aaron and asks him, “What did the people do to you that you brought such great sin upon them?” Aaron responds by repeating the words of the people about their concern about Moses’ delay and their request for a god to lead them. Aaron goes on to relate that he said to the people, “’Whosoever has any gold, let them break it off,” so they gave it me; and I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf.” The text continues by noting that Moses then observes that “the people had broken loose, for Aaron had let them break loose for a derision among their enemies.” Moses then calls for those who would join with them to exact punishment upon those who had participated in this sinful act, The Levites respond immediately and kill 3000 Israelites. No further comment, however, is made about Aaron. It appears that Moses accepts his justifications, Aaron’s report of the events, and Aaron gets off scot-free.
Commentators are bothered by this way of understanding the story. Some explain that in fact Aaron was punished. Like his brother Moses, Aaron dies in the desert and does not enter the land of Israel. But unlike the cases of Moses, whose denial of entry is due to his hitting the rock, no rationale is provided for Aaron’s not being able to enter the land. Thus some commentators attribute this to his role in the sin of the Golden Calf. But for other commentators, Rashi for example, citing a number of midrashim, a different set of factors accounts for the overall sin of Israel, and in part for Aaron’s role, including Aaron’s startling remark that the calf just came out of the fire, a fact the reader knows is not true as the text explicitly reports Aaron fashioned the calf with a engraving instrument. According to this line of explanation, Satan played a decisive role in tempting Israel to sin. For example, Satan confused the Israelites, regarding the time of day on the 40th day of Moses’ being away, by causing the sky to become dark early. Satan also made an image appear in the sky of Moses’ body being carried on a pallet. In commenting on Ex. 32:5, “And Aaron saw it (the calf),“ Rashi adds, “That it was, alive.” Rashi here draws on the retelling of the Sin of the Golden Calf in Ps. 106:20 which describes the animal as having the likeness of “an ox eating grass.” Aaron in turn realizes that Satan had succeeded. Finally, Rashi comments on Ex. 32:6, “and the people rose early in the morning and made sacrifices,“ that Satan roused them to sin. While there is much to say about the goals of this tradition of invoking of Satan as an instigator, one purpose these comments serve is to exonerate Aaron and thereby to account for his lack of punishment.
What are we to make of this way of portraying the events? I would note two lines of thought that might have something to say to us today. First, much of later Jewish tradition about Satan, equates Satan with a person’s evil inclination, with those forces in the personal psyche that can lead people to inappropriate behavior and thoughts. Thus in this case, the Israelites due to their own insecurities were tempted by the apparitions that Satan had displayed. It was the Israelites negative desires that occasioned their response to thoughts that led to their eventual downfall. In this regard the story, as retold with a role assigned to Satan and therefore to our own insecure desires and wishes, teaches that we must be in control of such psychic factors, discern them, and hopefully deal with them successfully and not let them get the better of us. The second lesson, though, is that despite the goal of traditional commentators to “let Aaron off the hook,” that we must reflect on how easy it is to blame others for our own failings. Such efforts to blame others are dangerous, whether invoked by leaders or by everyday people. I find myself more attracted to the interpretation of the story according to which Aaron’s action do eventually have consequences for him. While I would not connect his failure to enter the land in a direct causal connection with his false proclamations and failure to be an effective leader, I am comfortable with these commentator’s efforts not to accept Aaron’s assertions of his innocence. In the events of our day we should not accept protestations by leaders and by all others with whom we interact that “The Devil made me do it.” Passing the buck is not something we can tolerate. The Sin of the Golden Calf was in many ways the failure of the people and of Aaron to take ownership for their actions and to take responsibility for what they wished for and what they did.