The Exodus:5 Project
When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron announced: “Tomorrow shall be a festival of the LORD!” Exodus 32:5
Perjury is a legal term for lying under oath. Because such an act takes place during legal proceedings, it is logical that the word and its behavior have been carefully picked apart by the people who are concerned with such things: lawyers and judges.
Suppose a man was on trial for murder, the victim having been shot four times. If the examining attorney said to him, “Did you put four bullets in the deceased?” and the perp knows something the lawyer doesn’t – someone else shot one of the bullets – is it perjury to answer “no?” No.
It could be that the prosecutor needs to prepare better. But it is also the case that careful examination of testimony in criminal and civil cases is the hallmark of an honest legal system. Though the rigid application of the specifics of the law may result in failings in the pursuit of justice in one or another case, such missteps (ideally) serve to hone the law to prevent such shortcomings (ideally) in future applications.
The problem with the perjury standard in legal proceedings is this: life is not a legal proceeding. The person who crafts his or her words to carefully mislead with malice aforethought may or may not be legally innocent but is an absolute scoundrel.
And our national discourse is filled with absolute scoundrels these days. They stand on the podium in the press room. They make the rounds of the talk shows, serious and satirical. They occupy the offices of secretaries and under-secretaries. They tweet. They make things up and sprinkle the dust of credibility on them so that when presented with the evidence of their fabrication they can scream “fake!”
Martin Short plays a character named Nathan Thurm, a nervous liar who challenges everything said to him and eventually pleads to the camera, “Is it me or is it him? It’s him, right?” Bart Simpson made his early reputation denying responsibility for every mishap with an automatic “I didn’t do it.” And then there is Aaron.
Jewish tradition has nothing but kind things to say about Aaron. Yet, the drama surrounding the Golden Calf was most certainly a failure of integrity on his part. Here he is on record declaring what is most certainly transgressive – Tomorrow will be a festival of the Lord! But when he is called on the mayhem that occurred on his watch, like the murderer who sees a loophole in the poorly-worded question, he gives the unmistakable impression that it was them, it wasn’t me. I didn’t do it.
Aaron has many defenders among the commentators and the contemporary faithful. But there is no getting around the fact that he lied. It wasn’t exactly perjury, but it was most definitely not the truth.
Handed the responsibility to maintain the blamelessness of the people through expiatory rituals, you might think Aaron is suddenly and permanently disqualified. If, on the other hand, you believe in second chances, it is worth remembering that Aaron remains blameless for the rest of his life, even when he might have been excused for reacting badly to the untimely deaths of sons and tribesmen. Perhaps this new path qualifies him in the hearts of our people for a do-over on his truthfulness despite the incident with the Calf.
But our contemporary scoundrels seem emboldened by what they can get away with. As surely as we have a record of Aaron saying, “Tomorrow will be a festival of the Lord,” we have audio recordings, video in wide distribution, eye-witnesses and victims, all of which attest to deceit at worst, obfuscation at best. But they tut-tut their accusers, deny the record and insist with practiced umbrage, “it was them, it wasn’t me; I didn’t do it.”
I admit to a soft spot in my heart for the defenders of Aaron. They wish to see the good in him and the best about him. They practice on him what he practiced toward others, to always give them the benefit of the doubt. If a single massive transgression had a purifying effect on Aaron’s honesty, I can even understand how some even deflect Aaron’s guiltiness by claiming he was trying to diffuse a time fraught with anxiety.
But among our modern-day prevaricators and their supports there is no benefit due. The lies are intentional, often cruel and always delivered with self-righteous arrogance. And because, to this point, most of the lies go without significant challenge, it has set the standard for a nation.
An entire generation had to pass before Aaron’s lie was no longer personal memory. Let us hope that despite these years of marinating in the constant flow of lies and “alternate facts” we find our way back to integrity.