Shemini: Expiation

On the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel. He said to Aaron: “Take a calf of the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering, without blemish, and bring them before the Lord. And speak to the Israelites, saying: Take a he-goat for a sin offering; a calf and a lamb, yearlings without blemish, for a burnt offering; and an ox and a ram for an offering of well-being to sacrifice before the Lord; and a meal offering with oil mixed in. For today the Lord will appear to you. (Vayikra 9:1-4)

The sin at the beginning –
brother against brother:
the coat, cruelly torn
and dipped in blood –
was expiated by a goat
offered in sacrifice.

The sin at the end –
turning from God:
the golden idol
blindly lauded –
was expiated by a calf
offered in sacrifice.

The sins of the people
against God and Man
were pardoned,
and then God’s presence
could dwell among them.

In a commentary on Parashat Shemini from 2013,, Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz notes that the parasha opens with the initiation of formal worship in the Tabernacle, where God’s Presence will dwell. On the eighth day after the period of ordination of Aaron and his sons, Moses tells them which sacrifices are to be offered in this first celebration, and concludes: “This is what the Lord has commanded that you do, so that the Presence of the Lord may appear to you,” (Vayikra 9:6). Rabbi Berkowitz notes, “Only through the ordering of these particular sacrifices will God’s Presence ultimately come to rest among the People.” He draws attention to the sin offerings mandated here: Aaron brought a calf (Vayikra 9:8) while the people’s offering was a goat (Vayikra 9:15). He wonders what might be the significance of these two animals, and  why these, in particular, brought down God’s Presence.
Rabbi Berkowitz quotes the Ramban who explains, “You sinned at the beginning and at the end. You sinned at the beginning, as it says,”…and they killed a goat and dipped the coat in the blood…” (Bereishit 37:31) and you sinned at the end, as it says, “…they have made themselves a molten calf…” (Shemot 32:8). Let them bring a goat to atone for the deed of the goat, and let them bring a calf to atone for the deed of the calf.”

The meaning of these respective offerings is clarified: the calf atones for the idolatrous sin against God, of the Golden Calf, while the goat atones for the transgression of  the brothers selling Joseph into enslavement. Rabbi Berkowitz concludes, “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.”


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