“Speak to Bnai Yisrael and tell them to take unblemished animals: a goat for a sin offering, a yearling calf and a lamb for a burnt offering, and a bull and a ram for a peace offering.” (VaYikra 9:3)
Our parasha describes the sacrifices offered on the eighth day of the inauguration of the Mishcan. Our pasuk indicates that Bnai Yisrael offered a sin offering and two Olah sacrifices. Why were these specific sacrifices required? Gershonides observes that these sacrifices are similar to those required to atone for idol worship. If the nation unintentionally engages in idolatry, it must atone through sacrifices. The required sacrifices are a goat as a sin offering and a bull as an Olah sacrifice. In our case, a goat was brought as a sin offering. However, two Olah sacrifices were required. One was a calf and the other was a lamb. Gershonides asks the obvious question. Why did the Olah offerings differ from those typically brought to atone for idolatry?
Of course, there is a more basic question. If these sacrifices were intended to resemble the atonement for idolatry, the nation must have been guilty of that sin. What act of idolatry had the nation performed? Gershonides suggests that the calf was intended to atone for the Egel HaZahav the Golden Calf. The lamb was offered because the Egyptians had worshipped this animal. This explains the significance of these two offering. Nonetheless, we are still left with a question. We can understand that the need to atone for the Egel. However, why was the nation required to offer a lamb representing the deity of the Egyptian? Initiation of the Mishcan required an absolute repudiation of the idolatry. Bnai Yisrael had been influenced by the idolatry of the Egyptians. The nation was now required to again reject these practices. The Egyptians worshiped the lamb. Through the Olah offering, Bnai Yisrael rejected the Egyptian deity. This does not completely resolve the issue.
The nation had already performed the service of the Pascal lamb before leaving Egypt. This service certainly demonstrated the nation’s rejection of Egyptian practices. Why was this further demonstration needed? The answer lies in the second Olah offering. This Olah was a calf. It represented atonement for the Golden Calf the Egel HaZahav. Through constructing the Egel, the nation returned to idolatrous practices learned in Egypt. Therefore, Bnai Yisrael was required to again repudiate these attitudes.
The Midrash Torat Kohanim offers a different reason for offering a goat as a sin offering. This sacrifice atoned for the goat slaughtered by Yosef’s brothers. The brothers killed a goat and dipped Yosef’s cloak into the blood. They sent the garment to Yaakov and suggested that Yosef had been killed by a wild animal. With this deception, the brothers attempted to conceal their own treatment of Yosef. Why was it necessary at this point to atone for this sin? What is the relationship between the inauguration of the Mishcan and the brother’s plot against Yosef?
We must consider the brothers motivation for wishing to destroy Yosef? One factor was Yosef’s claim that he would assume a position of authority over the brothers. Yosef told the brothers that they would not all be equals. He would be a leader over the others. The brothers rejected this vision. They were unwilling to accept the arrangement Yosef described. Bnai Yisrael was now faced with a similar situation. The service in the Mishcan would be performed by a single tribe Shevet Leyve. The other tribes would not participate in this service. The nation was required to demonstrate acceptance of this arrangement. The goat offering provided this demonstration. Through offering this sacrifice, the nation rejected the view of Yosef’s brothers. The nation acknowledged the right of Shevet Leyve to assume a leadership role. The people confirmed that the tribes would not be entirely equal.
“And a fire went forth from before Hashem. And it consumed the Olah sacrifice and the fats from upon the altar. And the nation saw. And they sang out and fell upon their faces”. (VaYikra 9:24)
The Mishcan was completed and inaugurated. Ahron, the Kohen Gadol offered his first sacrifices. A flame came forth, directed by the Almighty, and consumed the sacrifices from upon the altar. The nation of Israel responded in song. Targum Unkelos explains that the song of the people was not a mere expression of joy. The song was composed of praise of the Almighty. Why did Bnai Yisrael feel compelled to praise Hashem at this moment? The Almighty is the Creator of the Universe. He is exalted above all of His creations. Yet, He relates to and cares for humanity.
It is easy for us to misinterpret this relationship. We can become egotistical about this special attention. There is an even greater danger. Chovot HaLevavot explains that we can begin to take G-d’s kindness for granted. We may even begin to believe that we deserve this attention from the Creator and He owes us this special treatment. The Torah requires that we never forget the greatness of Hashem. He does not act with grace towards humanity to satisfy His needs. He has no needs or wants. We must realize that the Almighty’s love for us is an expression of His unfathomable kindness. We cannot explain His benevolence. We can only conclude that it emanates from His incomprehensible essence.
The flame descended and consumed the sacrifices upon the altar. Praise was essential at this moment. Bnai Yisrael must be reminded of Hashem’s greatness. The people could not allow the Almighty’s attention to lead to a diminution of His greatness. This praise helped assure that the people remained focused upon the infinite greatness of Hashem.
“Moshe said to Ahron, “This is exactly what Hashem meant when He said, ‘I will be sanctified among those close to Me, and I will be glorified’”. And Ahron was silent.” (VaYikra 10:3)
Ahron’s sons Nadav and Avihu offer a sacrifice that is not authorized. They are killed by the Almighty. Moshe consoles Ahron. He tells Ahron that he had realized that the sanctity of the Mishcan would be demonstrated through the death of a righteous individual. Nadav and Avihu have provided this demonstration. Ahron accepts this consolation. Moshe communicates a second message to Ahron in his consolation. Ahron is required to offer the sacrifices on this eighth day of the inauguration. This will prevent Ahron from mourning his sons. Ahron accepts Moshe’s direction. He does not forsake his responsibilities as Kohen Gadol. Instead, he continues to serve in the Mishcan. Rashi explains that Ahron was rewarded for his silence and his acceptance of Moshe’s direction. As a result of his response, Ahron received a commandment directly from the Almighty.
Hashem rewards us in a manner that corresponds with our merits. How did this reward correspond with Ahron’s behavior?
Maimonides explains that a person cannot receive prophecy when sad or mourning. This is the reason Yaakov did not receive prophecy during the period he mourned for Yosef. Yet, Ahron experienced prophecy almost immediately after the death of his sons! How is this possible? Moshe’s condolences were not merely aimed at comforting Ahron. Moshe did not want Ahron to allow his personal tragedy to interfere with the inauguration of the Mishcan. According to Rashbam this was the essence of Moshe’s message to Ahron. Through continuing to serve in the Mishcan, Ahron would demonstrate that this service was more important than mourning his sons. Ahron’s silence indicated that he had accepted Moshe’s counsel. We can now understand the relationship between Ahron’s silence and the prophecy he received. This prophecy was a direct result of Ahron’s response to Moshe’s words. Ahron realized that it was not appropriate to mourn. He continued to serve the Almighty in happiness. As a result, he was fit to receive prophecy. Hashem rewarded Ahron in a manner that demonstrated Ahron’s remarkable character.
“To distinguish between the unclean and the clean and between the animals that may be eaten and the animals you may not eat.” (VaYikra 11:47)
The Torah discusses the species that are prohibited and those that we may consume. This discussion ends with the above pasuk. On a superficial level the pasuk is explaining the reason for the preceding discussion. The Torah requires that we distinguish between the clean and unclean animals. We must know which species are permitted and which are prohibited. In order to fulfill this obligation, a body of law is required. The lengthy discussion provides the legal basis to perform our obligation.
Sforno offers an alternative explanation of our pasuk. He explains that the Torah is revealing the reason for the prohibitions. Certain species are permitted and others are prohibited. The reason for these laws is to teach us to distinguish between the prohibited and the permitted. This explanation is difficult to understand. In short, Sforno is saying that the Torah requires that we distinguish between various species so that we learn to distinguish. This seems circular!
Sforno is teaching us an important lesson. To understand his message we must remember that the human being is composed of a material element combined with a spiritual component. The mission of the human being is to exert the power of the spiritual over the material. How is this accomplished? We cannot ignore our material element. We must eat and respond to other material needs! How do we prevent ourselves from becoming excessively involved with our material element? The Torah responds to this dilemma. It provides a means by which the material function of eating can be converted to a spiritual expression. Through following the laws of the Torah we learn to guide our desires by a system of law. Eating becomes an expression of halacha rather than a purely instinctual function. This is Sforno’s message. The laws teach us to distinguish. This process of discerning the permitted and the prohibited transforms the act of eating into a spiritual activity.
Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Shegagot 12:1. Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1997), pp. 119. Rabbaynu Bachya ibn Paquda, Chovot HaLevavot, Part 3, Chapter 2. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 2, chapter 36. Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 10:3. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer VaYikra, 11:46.