Finding Atonement After Sin

Shemini By :  Matthew Berkowitz Director of Israel Programs Posted On Apr 3, 2013 / 5773

Parashat Shemini opens with the initiation of the Tabernacle altar. After a seven-day period of ordination, sacrifices are commanded for the first time. Moses convenes Aaron and his sons, and tells them very specifically the nature of the sacrifices that God has commanded. More than simply reflecting a sacrificial rite, the parashah explicitly directs our attention to the ends: “this is what the Lord has commanded that you do, so that the Presence of the Lord may appear to you” (Lev. 9:6). Only through the ordering of these particular sacrifices will God’s Presence ultimately come to rest among the People. It is for this reason that both the biblical Israelite and modern reader of the text must pay close attention. First, Aaron comes forward to present a sin offering of a calf (Lev. 9:8); then, the People’s offering of a goat is presented (Lev. 9:16). What is the significance of these two animals? And how does their midrashic meaning guide us toward God’s Presence?

Rashi and Ramban, two prolific commentators of Torah, offer a rich interpretation. Basing his thoughts on the midrash (Sifra and Tanhuma), Shlomo Yitzhaki (Rashi) explains, “this calf was selected as a sin offering to announce that the Holy One, blessed be God, granted atonement by means of this calf for the incident of the golden calf which Aaron had made.” Just as Aaron had sinned through the making of a calf, now he must atone for that same transgression through a calf. Nahmanides (Ramban) takes this symbolism a step deeper in quoting Torat Kohanim, “You sinned at the beginning and at the end. You sinned in the beginning, as it states, ‘and they killed a goat and dipped the coat in the blood;’ and you sinned at the end, as it states, ‘they made a golden calf which I did not command them.’ Let him bring a goat to atone for the event of the goat, and let them bring a calf to atone for the event of the calf.”

According to this rich midrash, the symbolism behind these respective offerings becomes clear. While the calf atones for the idolatrous sin of the Golden Calf, the second offering of a goat atones for the transgression of selling our brother Joseph into enslavement.  Woven together, the liminality of this event becomes all the more powerful. As the people offer sacrifices for the first time at the altar of the Tabernacle, they are compelled to atone for two blemishes on the national soul of Israel. Only after such atonement will God’s Presence then dwell among the people.

The message is clear and relevant in our time. While Aaron first makes atonement for a sin against God (the Golden Calf), he then makes atonement for a tragic sin rooted in humanity (the selling of Joseph into slavery). By being attentive to both the vertical (divine) and horizontal (human) vectors of relationship, we nurture and embrace God’s Presence in our midst. Far from being a lesson bound by the biblical Tabernacle, our parashah offers us a deep teaching about the nature of ourselves and the power of bringing the divine into our daily lives.

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.