The Sins at the Beginning
Shmini (Leviticus 9-11 )
During the dedication of the Mishkan, the Jewish people were required to bring many korbanos, sacrifices, (Vayikra 9:3-4) a goat for a sin offering, a calf and lamb for a burnt offering and a bull and a ram for peace offerings.
Why so many? The Toras Kohanim explains that the Jewish people had an account with Hashem, with “sins at the beginning and sins at the end.” The “sins at the beginning” refer to the sale of Yosef, when the brothers dipped his coat in goat’s blood. The goat comes as atonement for that sin. The “sins at the end” refer to the Golden Calf, for which the calf is brought as atonement.
We can readily understand why the Jewish people had to make amends for the sin of the Golden Calf during the dedication ceremony of the Mishkan. The erection of the Golden Calf as an intermediary to Hashem was tantamount to avodah zarah, a direct affront to Him. Therefore, when the Mishkan was being dedicated and the Shechinah was about to dwell within it, amends were very much in order.
But what was the connection between the sale of Yosef and the dedication of the Mishkan? It was not a recent occurrence. Why then should it be brought up again in this context?
The Yalkut Yehudah points out that an underlying element of jealousy led to the sale of Yosef. The brothers could not bear that Yaakov singled Yosef out for a special role, that he gave him special treatment, that he provided him with special garments. If Yosef was so special, that meant they were less special. Unable to bear the thought, they plotted against him and eventually sold him into slavery.
What was happening when the Mishkan was being built? One family was being singled out to be the priestly caste, to perform the sacred service, to wear special priestly garb, to be given the priestly gifts, to be treated as special in every way. The Kohanim were an easy target for jealousy, as indeed came to pass during Korach’s rebellion, when they declared (Bamidbar 16:3), “The entire congregation is holy and God is among them; why should you lord it over the assembly of God?”
The dedication of the Mishkan was, therefore, a time to remember that in Judaism there are roles. There are roles for Kohanim; there are roles for Levites; there are roles for men; there are roles for women. Not everyone is alike. Not everyone has the same strengths. Not everyone is going to have the same duties and responsibilities. Not everyone is going to get the same benefits and privileges. Everyone must be content with the role Hashem has assigned to him.
This then was an exceedingly appropriate time to bring sacrifices to atone for the sin of selling Yosef. This would impress upon the people the extreme danger of giving in to jealousy. It had led to disaster in the past, and it could lead to disaster in the future, unless it was nipped in the bud.
After Moshe gave Aharon all the detailed instructions regarding his duties in the dedication of the Mishkan, he said to him, “Draw near to the Altar.” What happened? Why did he need special encouragement? Why did Moshe have to coax him forward?
The Toras Kohanim explains that Aharon suddenly saw the Altar in the shape of an ox, and he shrunk back. As the Ramban explains, the shape of the ox reminded Aharon of the sin of the Golden Calf, in which he had played an unwilling role.
In his great righteousness, Aharon did not consider himself worthy of approaching the Altar. “How can I come near to the Altar?” he said. “I, too, participated in the Sin of the Golden Calf.”
“My brother, you’re afraid of that?” Moshe told him. “You of all people don’t have to fear what the ox represents.”
That is why, the Toras Kohanim concludes, Moshe said to Aharon, “Draw near to the Altar.”
The Toras Kohanim leaves us somewhat in the dark. Why indeed did Aharon have nothing to fear from the image of the ox? What was wrong with his reasoning? Even if he was not fully guilty, it was certainly a matter of concern. What did Moshe mean when he told him that “you of all people don’t have to fear” the memory of the Golden Calf?
The Yalkut Yehudah offers an explanation based on the Midrash. Why indeed did Aharon participate in the construction of the Golden Calf? Even after he saw Chur murdered, why didn’t he put his foot down and take a stand? Why didn’t he say, “I will not allow this. Over my dead body will you make an idol”?
According to the Midrash, Aharon had the best interests of the Jewish people in mind. “If I let them build the Calf,” Aharon reasoned, “the sin will be forever on their heads. Better that I should build it. Better that I should be blamed than the Jewish people. Better that I should bear the sin.”
Hashem told Aharon, “Your love for the Jewish people was such that you were willing to sacrifice your righteousness to save them. Therefore, you will be anointed High Priest.”
Because of his self-sacrifice, because he was willing to give up his Olam Haba for the Jewish people, because he placed the welfare of the people above his own, precisely for these reasons was he deemed worthy of being the Kohein Gadol.
“My brother, you are afraid of that?” Moshe told Aharon. “That’s precisely why you were chosen. Draw near to the Altar!”
ֹּAnd Aharon was silent. (10:3)
Aharon’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, were men of extraordinary stature, righteous leaders who were worthy of someday stepping in the shoes of Moshe and Aharon. And then, during the joyous dedication of the Mishkan, they made a small error, and a fire reached out from the Holy of Holies and snuffed out their lives.
We cannot even begin to imagine the shock to Aharon, a father who witnessed his two glorious sons perish right before his eyes. What went through his mind in that split second? His own loss, the loss suffered by the entire Jewish people, the loss suffered by the two deceased sons themselves. So much loss. Such a gaping void.
What was Aharon’s reaction? The Torah tells us that “Aharon was silent.” Silence. Complete acceptance. Unshakable faith. One of the most eloquent and powerful exhibitions of faith recorded in the Torah.
The Torah forbids excessive mourning over a deceased relative (Devarim 14:1). “Do not mutilate yourselves, and do not tear out your hair between your eyes over the dead.” The Ramban writes that self-destructive mourning shows a lack of faith in Hashem. If we believe in the immortality of the soul and that all Hashem does is ultimately for the good, we do not mourn too much, even in the face of tragic
A few years ago, the Baltimore community suffered a tragic loss on Erev Pesach. Mr. and Mrs. Israel Weinstein’s son and his wife were killed in an automobile accident while coming from Lakewood to Baltimore for Pesach.
I was not there to witness it personally, but I heard from others that Mr. Weinstein’s faith and acceptance were incredible. It is hard to conceive how a man who has just been told that his two beloved children had been torn away from him can walk into the Pesach Seder and make the Shehechianu blessing, thanking Hashem for sustaining life and bringing us to this joyous occasion. It is hard to conceive how such a man can walk into shul the next day and say “Gut Yom Tov” to everyone without a trace of his grief on his face so as not to disturb the festival spirit. It is hard to conceive how such a man, sitting in shul, can reach out and affectionately pat the cheek of a little child that happens to walk by. It could only be accomplished by a man whose heart is full of a rare and unshakable faith.
During the Shivah, the father of the boy whose cheek Mr. Weinstein had patted asked him, “How, in the moment of your most profound grief, could you still bend down to a child and pat him on the cheek?”
“At that exact moment,” Mr. Weinstein responded, “when your little boy walked past me, with everything I was feeling in my heart, I realized how special each and every one of our children is. Sometimes we take our children for granted. Times like these clear our vision.”
A person can only have such strength if he has a clear vision of the eternal light that shines at the end of every dark tunnel, if he has a strong and abiding faith in the Master of the Universe. Such a person, like Aharon before him, can be silent.