I could tell my brother was furious. His nostrils flared as he stood on the mountain, looking down on the crowd dancing around a golden calf. Jaw clenched, arms shaking, he lifted the two tablets up high. His eyes seemed to pick me out from amongst the multitudes. I could feel his gaze boring a hole through my head. Then, anger consuming him, he threw down those tablets and flew toward our people, destroying the golden calf, meting out punishment to those who danced for the false god.
After the dust had settled, I watched as my brother went from elder to elder, asking how this travesty had happened. Finally, he turned and walked to me. Moses looked into my eyes and shook his head slowly from side to side- just as he had done when Pharaoh rejected his early requests. Then he said the five words which will always haunt me: “Aaron, you let me down.” With disappointment and weariness consuming his often serene face, he turned around and started back up the mountain to begin again with God. I stood in his wake, unable to breathe, silently suffering from the burden of his disappointment. His words had pierced my heart, and I wondered if I would ever recover. He had trusted me, and I had let him down. I had failed my brother, God’s chosen leader, my partner in the pursuit of our people’s freedom.
I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know where to turn. I wanted to run away and hide. I felt small, diminished. When I was young, my cousins used to tauntingly call me “silent Aaron” because whenever something terrible happened, I would run off, shut myself down, and silently brood. In the face of my failure, I became silent Aaron once again. I wanted to talk to Miriam, my sister, so that she could help me make sense of what had happened and where I had gone wrong. I caught sight of her standing among a crowd of women. I listened to her attempts to offer these wives, sisters, and mothers comfort as they grieved for the loved ones that they had just seen devastated by the plague of punishment. I watched as these women wept, explaining to my sister that they had tried to tell their men not to rely on false gods. My stomach sank farther with each tear they shed. Did my sister, wrapped in the arms of grieving women, blame me as well? I couldn’t stay in my tent a moment longer. I was drowning in the certainty of my failure. I wandered to the edges of our multitude. I did not realize my intended destination until I saw the tent of Jethro, Zipporah’s father. At my approach, he lifted his weathered face and looked into mine. With one glance he seemed to see the depth of my pain. He stood slowly, approached me calmly, and asked me what was wrong.
I wasn’t certain that I should confide in him; after all, he was Moses’ father-in-law. But I remembered that he had been so helpful to Moses, guiding him through his feelings of inadequacy and exhaustion. And his voice, his eyes, and his bearing all told me that he was a man who wanted to help, who cared about me even when I felt unworthy.
I was drawn in by the warmth of his smile and by the kindness that illuminated his face. I walked to him, and when he wrapped me in a big bear hug, I fell apart. It all came pouring out in a jumble. I shared my joy at uniting with my baby brother and my excitement about being his partner in our sacred pursuit. I told him about my confidence in my ability to translate Moses’ intentions - God‘s instructions, really - into language that the people could hear and understand. I laughed as I assured him through my sobs that I have always had a way with words. I told him that when we arrived at Mt. Sinai, Moses had been called to the mountaintop, and that after that moment, everything seemed to crumble. I explained how abrupt and terrifying it had felt when Moses had said to me, “Take care of the people. I’ll be back in 40 days. You’re in charge.” I cried as I revealed that Moses had left me with no guidance about what I might face, what to look out for, or how to handle the rabble rousers among us. I told him that when each day ended and Moses hadn’t returned, the people became more agitated and fearful and that I had felt my own mind filling with the same doubts. My heart hurt every time I heard someone claim that Moses had been killed, that he was never coming back, that God had abandoned us. These words were like chisels. Every utterance left less of me behind.
I was so filled with my own worries, so unaccustomed to dealing with such mass panic, that the only thing I could think to do was to try to stall for time. So I embraced our people and their fears. I resolved to do something, anything, to hold them off until Moses returned. I asked them to give me their jewelry - beautiful items handed down l’dor vador (from generation to generation) - so I could make them a godly figure. I assumed that our people, who were, until recently, slaves who had owned precious little of value, would be unwilling to part with these priceless reminders of their beloved families. I hoped that my request would buy us some time. I didn’t know what else to do. I paused in my story, overcome all over again with the helplessness, the fear, the uncertainty that I had felt at that moment. Jethro offered me a drink from his waterskin and sat quietly until I was ready to continue.
I told him how gratified I had been when I learned that the women had recognized the falsehood of the idol I promised and had refused to part with their jewelry. But the men, oh they were so angry and afraid. They started tossing their gold and silver trinkets at me, demanding I begin to cast the mold immediately. So I did. Because I didn’t know what else to do. I worked slowly, precisely, always praying that my brother would appear before my work was completed. But then they grew furious at my delay, and they pressed me to hurry. And once again, I did. Because I didn’t know what else to do. Because I couldn’t find Miriam to ask her advice. Because Moses was gone. Because God was silent. In a moment of uncertainty, I failed the people I had been charged with guarding. I melted down my convictions, my faith, and I used that destruction to build the calf that our people would worship.
When I finished telling Jethro my story, I was barely able to speak. My words mixed up with my tears, and I could hardly catch my breath.
I refused to meet Jethro’s eyes. I was ashamed. Jethro sat with me in silence, offering me the comfort of his presence, the assurance that my actions needn’t make me an outcast. And then he spoke - quietly, confidently, kindly - saying, “Aaron, you did all that you could. You do not need to be ashamed of the fact that your best was not enough in this situation. We are each born with certain gifts and certain failings. “Take pride in your loquaciousness before Pharaoh. Find meaning in your ability to be a trustworthy confidante to your brother. Find strength in your sister, the prophetess.
“You must remember that a priest is not the same thing as a god. We are given much power, but we are unquestionably human. When we serve our people well, we create tethers between their hearts and ours, and sometimes those links bring pain and not strength. Your people were hurting and afraid, and you, human that you are, felt their pain as well as your own. This may be a priestly failing, but it is a human success.” Then Jethro, the kindly mentor, the father-in-law of my brother, the High Priest of Midian, took my face in his hands, lifted my gaze up to his, and, with his eyes seeing deeply into my soul, spoke to me of my future:
“You are not alone, Aaron, priest of Israel. Your people may not always understand you. Your siblings may be blinded by the weight of their own responsibilities. But you are not alone. You are part of the brotherhood of men and women who connect their people to their gods. We work in the realm of the divine, and we walk in the realm of humanity. We balance on a precarious perch, but we take strength from the people who surround us.
“One day, we will meet again, High Priest to High Priest, and we will celebrate the way that you rebuilt yourself after this moment. We will speak of the soul-stirring rituals you have led with your sons, and we will recall the mistakes you have made in your service to your God and your people. On that day, you will tell me of the ways that you have brought glory to the God of Israel. Welcome to our ranks, Aaron. You belong with us.”
My tears stopped flowing as I began to breathe easily again. Jethro’s words, his prophecy for our future, and his offer of brotherhood soothed my soul. I thanked and embraced him and then began walking back to my tent.
I marveled at the feeling of companionship that engulfed me, at the knowledge that while I walked alone, I was accompanied by those who walked similar paths. That I could not see them was of no consequence because I would always feel their presence in my heart.
I now sensed that the next part of my journey with God had begun. I was grateful that I would not be traveling alone.