Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 3 April 2021 / 21 Nisan 5781

Parashat Shemini

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Atoning Consecration

It is the eighth and final day of the inauguration of the Mishkan. Aharon is commanded to bring an offering — a calf as a sin-offering and a ram as an ascent-offering.

This is the only offering that requires a calf — a young, two-year-old calf, which is nearly at the age of maturity (three years). It is fitting that the kohen who is about to serve in the Sanctuary should represent himself with an animal approaching the age of maturity. Later, when he has already assumed the office of anointed kohen, he represents himself with a cow.

The two offerings represented his personal commitment to adhere to the lofty heights of his calling (the sin-offering), and his commitment to be a leader and model for the community, striding before them and guiding them to the heights of perfection (the ascent-offering).

There is another symbolism to the calf. This sin-offering was meant to atone for the sin of the golden calf, even though atonement has already been effected for this sin. Aharon had made the golden calf as a symbol of the powers subservient to G-d. But the people adopted a heathen belief and turned the golden calf into what they saw to be a divine power, ruling coordinately with G-d. In order to purify this stain, Aharon slaughters the calf, showing mastery over it. He then takes the blood of the calf and devotes it to the one G-d, showing that all serve Him. Through this offering, he expresses that the same physical force to which the heathen world bends its knee rules also within man. But man can rule over it with his moral freedom. Once nature is mastered by man’s free will, then it too is sanctified and joined to G-d’s service. When man grasps this truth, he atones for the sin of idolizing nature. The false god of nature — within and without — is subordinated.

The ascent-offering reverses the failure of Aharon to lead and guide the people. Instead of yielding to them as he once did, he vows to adhere always to walk before them, to show them the way that leads to G-d.

It is with these two offerings of the individual and leadership commitment that the Sanctuary — the place of atonement — is consecrated.

  • Sources: Commentary, Vayikra 9:2

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