Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 3 July 2021 / 23 Tammuz 5781

Rosh Chodesh: Atonement for G-D?

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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This week’s Torah portion lists the various obligatory communal offerings — beginning with the daily offerings, continuing on to the Mussaf offerings of Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh, and then the Mussaf offerings of each of the holidays. Although the Mussaf offering of Rosh Chodesh and the rest of the holidays share the same components — an ascent offering of one or two bulls, a ram and seven sheep, and a he-goat for a sin offering — the language the Torah uses to describe the he-goat sin offering of Rosh Chodesh is different. Only for the sin offering of Rosh Chodesh does the verse describe it as “sin-offering to G-d.” Surely, all offerings are directed to G‑d! Our Sages understand the emphasis to imply that the sin offering is brought, so to speak, on behalf of G-d.

What does this mean? How could G-d need atonement? And how could we effect that atonement? And why on Rosh Chodesh?

The Sages’ comments become even more confounding. Why is the he-goat of Rosh Chodesh different in that it says “for G-d?” The Holy One, Blessed be He said, “May this he-goat be atonement for Me for diminishing the moon.” (Shavuot 9a)

G-d is the G-d of love, Who educates man and mankind. Through the changing phases of the moon, He has shown us a model for ourselves. With each recurring new moon, Rosh Chodesh teaches that, like the moon, we are capable of renewing ourselves and of attaining light after any darkness. On Rosh Chodesh we are taught that the sinner can still be for G-d, can yet renew himself and his commitments. Moreover, the sin-offering is for G-d. The ability to sin, the need for atonement, and thepossibility of cleansing oneself and of elevating oneself out of the depths of sin — these are all “for G-d.” For without the ability to sin — the supreme gift of free will granted only to G-d’s most noble creation — man would be no different from an animal or an angel. He would not be a human being who serves G-d in freedom. Instead, when man is free to sin, is enticed with sensual allurements but resists it with the determination of his free will, only then does man attain closeness with G-d through moral purity.

Viewed in this perspective, man’s self-elevation from sin — the message of the renewed moon — effects an atonement for the ability to sin that is ingrained in his nature. The self-elevation is possible only because of the ability to sin. In terms of the moon analogy, G-d endowed the moon with the capacity for temporary darkening — diminishment — so that on Rosh Chodesh we would perceive its light again.

People ask, Why did G-d give man the ability to sin and introduce evil into the world? The answer to their question is given by the sinner who turns in freedom to moral purity, for he never would have reached this lofty level had he not been given the ability to sin. Thus, the sinner’s repentance justifies, as it were, the Creator’s decision to endow man with the ability to sin. Every victory over sin is an atonement for the ability to sin. Thus, on Rosh Chodesh, when we are inspired to renew ourselves and our commitments to separate and elevate ourselves from sin, reflecting the new light that the moon shines, we atone, so to speak for the Creator who “dimmed” man temporarily so that he may shine more brightly.

  • Sources: Commentary, Bamidbar 28:11, 15

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