The Sale of Joseph, The Golden Calf and the Tabernacle
Shmini (Leviticus 9-11 )
Vayikra, 9:2-3: “He said, ‘Aaron, Take for yourself a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for an elevation offering – unblemished; and offer them before Hashem. And to the Children of Israel speak as follows: Take a he-goat for a sin-offering, and a calf and a sheep in their first year – unblemished – for an elevation offering’.”
Toras Kohanim Vayikra, 9:3: “What did Israel see to bring more than Aaron? Rather, Moshe said to them, you have on your hands from the beginning and you have on your hands from the end: At the beginning, as it says1, ‘And they slaughtered a he-goat’; At the end, as it says, ‘They made for themselves a molten calf.’2 But Aaron only had a portion in the [sin of] the calf,”
The Parsha begins with an outline of the sacrifices to be brought at the consecration of the Tabernacle: Among other Sacrifices, Aaron had to bring a bull offering for himself, and the Jewish people had to bring a goat and a calf offering. The Torat Kohanim explains that these offerings represented atonement for previous sins. In the case of Aaron, he needed to atone for his role in the Golden Calf so measure for measure, he brought an egel. The Jewish people needed atonement for two sins – for Golden Calf like Aaron, and for the sin of their ancestors in the sale of Joseph.
There are a number of questions on the Midrash. Firstly, why was it in particular at the point of the inauguration of the Tabernacle that these sins were atoned for?
Secondly, the fact that the Jewish people had to atone for both the sin of sale of Joseph and the Golden Calf at the same time suggests a common denominator between the two sins, yet it is not immediately apparent what that is.
Finally, the Midrash states that the people needed to atone for the sale of Joseph, but Aaron did not: Why is this the case – none of the people actually sinned themselves in selling Yosef, rather, evidently, they had to atone for their ancestors’ role in the sin. Aaron was a descendant of Levi, who was one of the ringleaders in the sale, so why did he not need atonement for that sin if everyone else did?
The Kli Yakar3 addresses some of these questions: He suggests that the common denominator between the two sins was the prevalence of jealousy in both episodes. It is well-known that the brothers were jealous of Yosef and this was the root cause of the terrible sin of selling him. The Kli Yakar asserts that the people who sinned at the Golden Calf were also driven by jealousy, in this case of Moshe. That jealousy was what caused them to rationalize that he would not return, and to demand a new ‘leader’. In his words:
“…this calf emerged because many were jealous of Moshe, like the camp of Korach and his assembly. So too, at that time, many jealous people tried to harm him…saying, ‘this man Moshe, we do not know what happened to him’. [This was] in order to remove from themselves his [Moshe’s] yoke from upon them and to appoint upon them this disgraceful calf…because jealousy is the cause of disunity…”
As a support for this idea, he then notes that hundreds of years later, Yeravam, the first King of the Northern Kingdom, also sinned by erecting calves that caused the dramatic split between the two Kingdoms of Israel. What was the driving force behind this terrible sin – his jealousy of the Kingdom of Yehudah.
The Kli Yakar then explains why Aaron only needed atonement for his role in the Golden Calf in facilitating the creation of the calf, but did not need atonement for the role of his ancestors in the sale of Joseph. While the Jewish people still bore traces of the sin of jealousy that began at the sale of Joseph, Aaron himself had totally rectified any failing in that area through his actions in bringing Shalom to the people. One could add that he displayed no jealousy of his brother, Moshe, even when Moshe assumed his role as leader and Prophet.4 Accordingly, Aaron had shown that he was totally free of any blemish of jealousy, and he only needed atonement for his role in the Golden Calf.
With this approach, we can now understand why the atonement for these two sins came about at the time of the inauguration of the Tabernacle. A significant part of the function of the Tabernacle was to act as a unifying force within the Jewish people. If they were still afflicted with the trait of jealousy, then they would not have been sufficiently able to benefit from the positive effect of the Tabernacle.5
We have seen how the trait of jealousy is so destructive that it even played a key role in the Golden Calf, a sin that is more obviously in the realm of one’s relationship with God. We also see that the jealousy displayed in the Golden Calf and the sale of Joseph had such a deleterious effect that it required atonement at one of the most important moments in the history of the Jewish people. May we merit to erase this trait from our lives.
- In the sale of Josepah, Bereishit, 37:31.
- In the sin of the Golden Calf, Shemot, 32:8.
- Kli Yakar, Vayikra, 9:3.
- See my piece on Parshas Tetzaveh: ‘Moshe and Aaron: Brothers dwelling Together’, for a lengthy discussion of this idea.
- This is based on the Oznayim LeTorah cited by Rav Yissachar Frand, shlit’a.