New Lessons from the Sin of the Golden Calf

And he said to Aharon: Take for yourself a calf, the son of a bull, as a sin offering and a ram as an Olah offering – unblemished ones. And offer them before Hashem. (Sefer VaYikra 9:2)

1. Aharon’s atonement for the Golden Calf
In Parshat Shemini, the Torah continues its description of the initiation of the Mishcan – the Tabernacle. The first element of this process was described in the previous parasha. For seven days, Aharon and his sons, the Kohanim – the priests – remained in the precincts of the Mishcan and observed Moshe as he performed all of the elements of the service. Moshe taught and demonstrated the many laws and requirements associated with sacrificial service and other elements of worship in the Mishcan.

Parshat Shemini continues this narrative with a description of the events that took place on the eighth day of the initiation process. On this day, Aharon assumed his role as Kohen Gadol – High Priest. With the assistance of his sons – the Kohanim – he performed the day’s services.

In the initial passages, of the parasha Moshe addresses Aharon. He tells him that he should secure for himself a calf to be sacrificed as a sin offering and a ram to be sacrificed as an Olah offering. Rashi comments that the selection of a calf to serve as Aharon’s sin offering has significance. This specific animal was selected as an allusion to the Egel HaZahav – the Golden Calf. Aharon was required to offer a calf as a sin offering in order to atone for the Golden Calf that he had created for the people.[1]

Chizkuni offers an important insight into Rashi’s comments. He explains that earlier the Torah established that the proper sin offering for a Kohen Gadol is a bull.[2] Therefore, Aharon’s obligation to bring a sin offering at this time should have been fulfilled through the offering of a bull. Instead, Moshe told Aharon that he was to bring a calf. Rashi’s comments are intended to explain this anomaly. Rashi is explaining that Aharon was commanded to bring a calf as his sin offering, rather than a bull, because this specific sin offering had a special purpose. It was intended to atone for Aharon’s role in the sin of the Golden Calf.[3]

Rashi’s comments are derived from the Midrash Torat Kohanim. The commentary Korban Aharon offers an additional insight in to the Midrash’s comments. Moshe said to Aharon, “Take for yourself a calf”. The phrase “for yourself” seems superfluous. Why did Moshe add this phrase? The Midrash is explaining that this phrase hints to the reason that Aharon was required to bring a calf and not the more typical bull as a sin offering. This sin offering was specifically designed to atone for his sin in facilitating the creation of Egel. Because the sacrifice’s design was specific to Aharon, a calf was required.[4]

And speak to Bnai Yisrael saying: Take a young he-goat as a sin offering and a calf and a year-old lamb – unblemished ones – as an Olah sacrifice. (Sefer VaYikra 9:3)

2. The he-goat and calf offered for Bnai Yisrael
In the Midrash, the discussion of the specific sacrifices offered on this day continues. Bnai Yisrael were also required to provide a sin offering. Their sin offering was to be comprised of a young he-goat. In addition to their sin offering, the people were to provide two Olah offerings. One was to be a calf and the other a lamb. The Midrash explains that the nation’s Olah offering included a calf as atonement for the nation’s worship of the Egel. However, the nation’s sin offering was comprised of a young he-goat. Why was a he-goat the appropriate animal to be sacrificed as a sin offering? The Midrash responds that the sin of Bnai Yisrael had a beginning and a culmination. It culminated with the worship of the Egel. However, the nation’s sin had roots in its ancient past. These roots were represented by the he-goat offered as a sin offering. To what ancient iniquity does the he-goat sin offering allude?

And they took Yosef’s garment. They slaughtered a he-goat. They immersed the garment in the blood. They sent the colored garment and brought it to their father. They said: We found this. Now, discern whether or not this is the garment of your son. (Sefer Beresheit 37:31-32)

3. The he-goat of the Mishcan’s consecration atoned for the mistreatment of Yosef
A he-goat was involved in one of the most tragic chapters of the nation’s history. Yosef’s brothers had judged him and found him guilty of unbridled ambition. They had concluded that he was a threat to the future of Bnai Yisrael. His behaviors and attitudes communicated a desire to subdue his brothers under his authority. Rather than risk being the victims of Yosef’s ambitions the brothers decided to sell Yosef into slavery.

However, the brothers’ disposal of Yosef required that they provide to their father an explanation for his disappearance. They slaughtered a he-goat and immersed Yosef’s special, prized garment in the he-goat’s blood. Then, they presented the blood-drenched garment to their father, Yaakov. Yaakov concluded that Yosef had been attacked and killed by a wild beast.

According to the Midrash, the he-goat brought on behalf of Bnai Yisrael on the eighth day of the Mishcan’s consecration was intended to atone for the sin of the brothers.

The comments of the Midrash raise a number of questions. First, why at this moment was atonement for this ancient sin required? If this sin required atonement, why did Hashem not demand this atonement from the brothers themselves or at some earlier point in history? Second, the Midrash asserts that the ancient sin of the brothers was somehow the antecedent of the sin of the Egel. Certainly, the brothers acted improperly – as they themselves acknowledged. However, what connection is there between their sin and the worship of the Egel hundreds of years later?

4. Sins in the present and their antecedents in the past
Korban Aharon offers an interesting explanation of the Midrash’s comments. The nation’s adoption of the Golden Calf as an object of worship represented a regression to the beliefs and behaviors that were prevalent in Egypt. Bnai Yisrael had lived in an idolatrous culture for hundreds of years and their break from and rejection of that society’s belief-system was less than absolute. Overwhelmed with anxiety, occasioned by their conclusion that Moshe had died upon Mount Sinai, the people became disoriented and succumbed to their panic. In this atmosphere of confusion, anxiety, and chaos, they sought to restore normalcy and order to their world by regressing to the familiar beliefs and practices of idolatry. This explanation of the nation’s behavior does not excuse it. It provides a basis for understanding the behavior.

However, attributing the nation’s adoption of the Egel as an object of worship to the people’s recent cultural experience raises an interesting issue. Who bears responsibility for the exile that placed Bnai Yisrael in Egypt in an idolatrous society? The responsibility for this exile rests with the brothers who sold Yosef into bondage in Egypt. The descendents of the brothers were condemned to experience oppression and bondage in Egypt as punishment for the sin of their fathers.[5]

According to the Midrash, the sacrifices offered on behalf of Bnai Yisrael were designed to communicate a profound message. The sin of the Egel did not occur spontaneously. It was the consequence of attitudes, beliefs, and practices that had become ingrained within the people over the course of their centuries of exile. The brothers brought about this exile through their sin. Therefore, the sin of the brothers required atonement.

5. We bear responsibility for the future outcomes of present shortcomings
An analogy will help illustrate the message communicated by the Midrash. A parent who does not provide his or her child with proper education and nurturing, is responsible for the misguided actions of the child. The failings of the child have their root in the failing of this parent. This does not excuse the child from responsibility for his or her behaviors. However, the parent also shares responsibility.

Similarly, the contemporary experience of Bnai Yisrael in exile has innumerable negative outcomes. Our children struggle to live Jewishly within an ambient culture that is hostile to Torah values. We hope that they will embrace Torah-truth and have the courage and tenacity to remain faithful to our heritage. However, every generation is required, through its actions and behaviors, to bring an end to exile or at least do everything in our power to promote Torah values in the antagonistic environment in which we find ourselves. Any failing on our part to respond to this mission makes us responsible for the failings of future generations.

And to the Elders he said: Wait for us here until we return to you. Aharon and Chur are with you. He who has a legal issue should bring it to you. (Sefer Shemot 24:14)

6. The sin of the Golden Calf and the murder of Chur
Rav Meir Simcha of Devinsk – Meshech Chachmah provides a very different explanation of the Midrash’s meaning. In the above passage, the Torah describes Moshe’s last message to the leaders of the nation before ascending Sinai. He placed the elders in charge of leading the nation in his absence. He authorized them to resolve all legal issues that may arise. Also, Moshe appointed Aharon and Chur as the heads of the elders. Chur was Miryam’s son and one of Moshe’s lieutenants. Therefore, it was fitting that he should be placed in this position of authority.

After this incident, Chur disappears from the narrative. Moshe does not return to the nation at the time anticipated by the people. They turn to Aharon and insist that he create for them some material form that can be the object of their worship and trust. Aharon was only one of the leaders Moshe appointed to lead the elders. Chur was Aharon’s companion. Where was Chur and why did he not support Aharon in resisting the people’s demands?

Our Sages explain that Chur was present and that he did resist the people’s demand. The people responded by murdering Chur and pressing their demands with Aharon.[6] Chur is never again mentioned in the Torah because he did not survive to receive Moshe upon his return.

The murder of Chur adds an additional element to the sin of the Egel. The sin of the Egel was more than a regression to a familiar idolatrous belief-system. The people acted with a determination and willfulness that did not allow for discussion. Chur attempted to reason with the people. He tried to dissuade them from a course of action that he believed he could demonstrate was misguided. The people would not be opposed. Neither would they endure the presence of an opposing voice judging and condemning their actions. Rather than defeat Chur’s arguments, they murdered the bearer of truth.

And each man said to his brother: Truly, we are guilty regarding our brother. We saw the anguish of his soul as he pleaded with us and we did not listen. Therefore, this tragedy has befallen us. (Sefer Beresheit 42:21)

7. The brothers’ limited repentance
In the above passage Yosef’s brothers acknowledge that they had sinned against him. However, it is important to note the extent and limits of their acknowledgment. They acknowledged that they had treated Yosef harshly – even mercilessly. They did not treat him with the compassion due a brother. They should not have sold him into bondage; they should have found some other solution to their dilemma. However, the brothers did not conclude that their assessment of Yosef was flawed. Even when acknowledging that they had treated him improperly, they continued to profess conviction in their judgment regarding their brother’s deeply flawed character. What had Yosef done to the brothers to convince them that he was their enemy?

These are the generations of Yaakov. Yosef, being seventeen years old, was tending the flock with his brothers, being still a lad even with the sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives. And Yosef brought an evil report of them unto their father. Now Yisrael loved Yosef more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a coat of many colors. And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him. (Sefer Beresheit 37:2-4)

These are the opening passages of the Torah’s description of the relationship between Yosef and his brothers. The Torah explains that Yosef reported to their father any misdeed they committed. The brothers observed that Yosef enjoyed a special relationship with Yaakov and that he was their father’s favorite son. This evoked the brothers’ resentment of Yosef and established the foundation of their future interactions.

It is apparent from the Torah’s description of these events and their affects that the brothers believed that Yosef was engaged in an ongoing effort to undermine their position with Yaakov and to curry his favor. They could not believe that Yosef’s propensity for reporting on them to Yaakov had a purpose other than turning their father against them. In other words, it never occurred to them that Yosef might be informing against them because he was morally opposed to their behaviors and wished to enlist his father in correcting the brothers. The brothers were certain that their assessment of Yosef was correct and they never abandoned their basic suspicion of him. They did repent for their treatment of Yosef but not for their judgment of him.

What convinced the brothers of the validity of their assessment? The Torah does not explicitly respond to this question. However, it does allude to an answer. The Torah describes Yosef’s reports to Yaakov as debah – tale-bearing. This is how the brothers perceived Yosef’s behavior. He was not interested in their betterment. He was interested in informing against them.

Do not bear tales among your nation. Do not stand upon the blood of your brother. Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your friend and do not be guilty on his account. (Sefer VaYikra 19:16-17)

8. The basis for the brothers’ assessment of Yosef
The above passages admonish us to not bear tales or to hate our brother. Instead, we are to speak openly to our friend about his behaviors, attitudes, or actions that cause us concern. In other words, if we feel that we have seen a wrong committed, we are to respond in a direct manner. We are required to confront the person we find at fault and not bear tales about his failings.

It seems reasonable to assume that the brothers held Yosef to the standard described in these passages. They felt that if Yosef was truly motivated by concern for their wellbeing, then he should have confronted them directly and not informed against them to their father. By not confronting them and instead, bringing to Yaakov his reports of their misdeeds, Yosef indicated to the brothers that his motivations were not sincere. He was plotting against them and seeking to undermine their relationship with Yaakov.

The brothers’ assessment of Yosef was influenced by a self-serving delusion. They believed that they were capable of being responsive to Yosef’s criticism. Their condemnation of Yosef was predicated on the belief that they would have accepted Yosef’s criticism and not turned against him for confronting them. Based upon this self-serving assessment of themselves, the brothers clung to their judgment of Yosef. They never fully overcame their suspicion of his motives or trusted his fraternity. As a consequence, the brothers never completely repented for their sins against Yosef. They simply could not repent. They truly believed that although their treatment of Yosef was unjustifiably harsh, their basic understanding of his personality had been sound and well-founded.

However, the brothers’ descendants did have the opportunity to atone for the brothers’ treatment of Yosef. They did come to understand that sometimes a person is not open to criticism. Sometimes the decision of a person to not rebuke his brother is not motivated by evil-intent but instead by self-preservation. The generation that sinned with the Egel understood why Yosef had deferred from rebuking their forefathers and instead turned to Yaakov for help. They came to comprehend Yosef’s assessment of their forefathers. They understood after they, themselves, murdered Chur rather than hear his rebuke.

Meshech Chachmah explains that only after the sin of the Egel – which included the murder of Chur – was it possible for the descendants of the brothers to understand their ancient sin and finally seek atonement for their terrible misjudgment of Yosef. Therefore, their sacrifices included an atonement for the Egel and an atonement for the ancient sin that only now was fully acknowledged.[7]

1. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 9:2.
2. Sefer VaYikra 4:1-12.
3. Rabbaynu Chizkiya ben Manoach (Chizkuni), Commentary on Sefer Vakikra, 9:2.
4. Rabbaynu Aharon ibn Chayim, Korban Aharon, Commentary on Midrash Torah Kohanim, Parshat Shemini, Mechilta De’Miluim, chapter 3.
5. Hashem had foretold to Avraham that his descendents would be oppressed in a foreign land. This suggests that the experience was not a consequence of the brothers’ sin but an element of Hashem’s plan for Avraham’s descendents. This question is discussed by various authorities. Korban Aharon is not alone among them in concluding that despite Avraham’s foreknowledge of his descendants’ bondage, this period of oppression was punishment for some sin.
6. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 32:5.
7. Rav Meir Simcha of Devinsk, Meshech Chachmah on Sefer VaYikra 9:3.