Hashem’s exacting judgement
ובאהרן התאנף יקוק מאד להשמידו ואתפלל גם בעד אהרן בעת ההיא
Hashem became very angry with Aharon, to the point of almost destroying him; I even prayed for Aharon at that time
While Moshe was recounting to the people the sin of the Golden Calf, he mentioned his brother Aharon’s complicity in the sin. When Moshe was late returning from Mount Sinai, the people thought he had died. They demanded Aharon make them a deity to worship. Aharon complied, and the Golden Calf was created. In this week’s parsha, we learn that Moshe sensed that Hashem was going to “destroy” Aharon. Rashi explains this means that his children would die. Moshe prayed that Hashem have mercy, despite Aharon’s sins. Hashem complied, allowing two out of four of Aharon’s sons to survive. Only his sons Nadav and Avihu perished, during the inauguration of the Mishkan. However, this explanation is inconsistent with a different one Rashi provides. The Torah describes how a vision of Hashem appeared before the dignitaries of the Jews. This included Aharon’s sons. The verse says that they acted without the proper respect; their sin was so great that they should have died instantly. However, Hashem didn’t feel the time was appropriate, and waited until the inauguration of the Mishkan. If so, they died by their own sin; it wasn’t because of their father’s sin with the Golden Calf. How can these two statements be reconciled?
One explanation is based on the verse that Hashem’s judgements are true, and altogether righteous. What this verse is teaching is that Hashem’s rulings are not like those of human beings. If a human King ruled that someone deserved to be punished, they would carry out the verdict without consideration for how others would be affected. Their family will also suffer the consequences in some way, even though they weren’t deserving. Not so Hashem. Any decree from Heaven that comes upon a person, is measured out exactly so that no one undeserving would be affected. If it would be that carrying out the verdict on an individual would wrongly affect others, the verdict would not come to fruition. This is what it means that they are altogether righteous; in every single way the judgements are fair. So too here with Aharon’s sons. On their own, they deserved to die for their sin. However, their father wasn’t deserving to have his sons perish, especially not on the day of the inauguration of the Mishkan. Therefore, we are taught in this week’s parsha that Aharon was deserving, for his culpability with the Golden Calf. Moshe’s prayers could only go so far, and only two of his sons were saved.
However, how can we say that Aharon sinned with the Golden Calf, to the point that his sons should have to die? We are taught elsewhere that Aharon’s actions saved many Jews from worse crimes. He created the Golden Calf in order to stall for time; to prevent the Jews from creating it themselves in a worse, out of control way. According to this, Aharon did nothing wrong. In fact, he is praised for his act! His act was so great, that Chazal even say this is what caused him to merit to become the Kohen Gadol, along with all the gifts that go to the Kohanim. Why then does the verse in this week’s parsha say that Hashem was angry at Aharon for what he did with the Golden Calf?
It’s possible to learn from here that Hashem’s judgement is so much more precise than a human being’s. Sometimes a person will do some act, which in essence is good, and needs to be done, but contains some means which essentially aren’t so good. Usually a person will see such an act, and will focus on the outcome, ignoring the means by which they got there. Since most of what was done was good, the whole thing is ruled to be good. So too the opposite. Something that was done which was essentially bad, even if it contained some elements that were good, will be judged to be entirely bad. This is not the case when it comes to Hashem. Hashem discerns every act that is carried out, with immeasurable precision. An act which was determined to be good, when it contains some elements which weren’t as good, or even some which could have been prevented, nothing is ignored. All the good which was done is rewarded, but the bad parts are also repaid in the proper way.
We can understand similarly with the Golden Calf. For sure Aharon’s acts were praiseworthy. By creating the Golden Calf, he was able to save many from worse sins. He managed to delay long enough for Moshe to return from the mountain. However, at the end of the day, he was the one who made the idol, and two thousand people ended up worshipping it. Therefore, according to Hashem’s judgement, that culpability couldn’t be ignored; even though it was bundled with tremendous good. Hashem consequently had to punish Aharon through his children. It was only with Moshe’s prayers that two of them were saved.
 Based on Be’er Yosef to Deuteronomy 9:20
 Deuteronomy loc. cit.
 See Exodus Chapter 32
 to Deuteronomy loc. cit. and Leviticus 1:12. His source is Vayikra Rabbah 10:5
 Mizrachi to Deuteronomy loc. cit.
 Exodus 24:10
 אצילי בני ישראל, the wording from verse 11
 Rashi to verse 10 and Moreh Nevuchim 1:5, from inter alia Midrash Tanchuma Acharei Mos § 6 and Tanchuma Yashan Acharei Mos § 8. See Torah Sheleimah to Exodus Chapter 24 § 99
 The Mizrachi loc. cit. answers that maybe both were the cause; neither one on their own would’ve sufficed
 Psalms 19:10
 Sanhedrin 7a with Tosafos s.v. כנגד מעשה העגל. Cf. Rashi ad. loc.
 Vayikra Rabbah 10:3; Shemos Rabbah 37:2
 Just like there’s no concept of bittul berov, nullification of the minority, when the minority is distinguishable in the majority. From Hashem’s perspective, everything is distinguishable. So the minority of bad cannot become nullified to the majority of good
 The verse even calls it his idol (Exodus 32:35)
 See http://parshaponders.com/Chukas-5777 which explains the Abarbanel’s opinion about why Aharon couldn’t enter the land of Israel: It was because he caused others to die by worshipping the Golden Calf. Since they couldn’t enter the land, neither could he
 See the rest of the Be’er Yosef, who uses this understanding of Hashem’s judgement to explain a contradiction about Lot’s daughters. On the one hand, the eldest is praised (and even rewarded) for her alacritous decision to conceive from her father. On the other, she is scorned for her perversion. Both are true, and neither can be ignored because of the other. He also uses this principle to explain how King David was punished for calling the Torah “songs” (see Psalms 119:54 and Sotah 35a), yet this statement is a verse included in Tanach