Moses was on Mount Sinai. He left Aaron and Hur in charge of the Israelite camp (Ex. 24:14). It was a difficult moment. Moses had hardly left before there was a crisis. The people had given up on him, and on God. They wanted a god they could see. The resultant drama is vividly depicted by rabbinic tradition, which assessed the role of each of the main participants.
It says Hur adamantly refused to co-operate. The people were livid. They turned on him and put him to death. (The rabbis derived this from the fact that Hur’s name disappeared from the Biblical story after this episode).
The reward for his loyalty to God was that his grandson, B’tzalel, was appointed as the architect of the Tabernacle, and a later descendant, King Solomon, built the Temple (Ex. R. 48, Sanh. 7a, Sot. 11b).
Aaron was also not inclined to go along with the people’s wishes. But then he decided to co-operate after all, and the rabbis had to exert themselves to find excuses for him. They said that when he saw Hur’s remains lying there he feared that he too would be murdered.
In addition, his love for Israel was so great that he was willing to commit a sin himself rather than risk the people compounding their guilt with a second murder (Ex. R. 41, Sanh. 7a).
However, he tried very hard to play for time in the hope that Moses would return before any act of idolatry occurred. This is why he asked them to bring him their jewellery and ornaments, expecting that they would hesitate. However, when they came forward with the jewellery he had no way out and then constructed the Golden Calf.
In some passages, the rabbis place all the blame on the Israelites. “What a fickle people!”, they comment; “One day they give silver and gold for the Divine sanctuary, and the next day they do likewise for a Golden Calf!”
(Centuries later, the chassidic sage, Rabbi Yitzchak of Slonim said, “The generation of the wilderness gave up silver and gold to make a god; our generation gives up God to make silver and gold”. Comment is superfluous.)
In other passages, the rabbis try to minimise the people’s sin. As Rashi points out, when the calf was ready the dancing around it was accompanied by the words, “These are your (not ‘our’) gods, O Israel!”, which sounds like outsiders speaking.
It was not Israel that took the initiative, conclude the sages, but the mixed multitude that came up out of Egypt with them. The mixed multitude could not understand the Jewish idea of a God who is invisible and intangible, and at the first opportunity schemed against Aaron and led Israel astray.