Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47
For seven days, Aaron, his sons and all of Israel have observed the investiture rites of the priesthood, and the time has arrived for the final sacrifices. As the significance of the event required, there were several different kinds of sacrifices: some Aaron offered on his own behalf, others on behalf of all Israel.
Rabbi Yonatan ben Uzziel, the greatest of Hillel’s students, found meaning in the details of the sin offerings. He wondered why Aaron is specifically commanded to offer a bull-calf for his sin offering, while Israel’s offering must be a goat. His answer? The bull-calf was an atonement for the Golden Calf which Aaron had fashioned at the foot of Mt. Sinai. The goat was for the goat’s blood that the Jacob’s sons used to lie to him about their part in Joseph’s demise.
Why should we care? Aaron’s sin offering is the easier to understand. He made the idolatrous Golden Calf with his own hands just as Moses was receiving the Commandments at the top of Mount Sinai. This severe failure in leadership led to catastrophic results. Before Aaron could fully assume the mantle of priestly leadership, he needed to make atonement.
The goat offered on behalf of Israel is a little more difficult because the story of the goat’s blood happened hundreds of years before the Exodus. Joseph’s brothers, in a fit of jealousy, removed his special coat, threw him into a deep pit and left him alone as they went off to discuss what they would do with him next. While they were off in the distance, Joseph was captured by slavers and sent on his way to Egypt. When the brothers returned and found the pit empty, they panicked. What would they tell Jacob, their father? To cover their tracks, they slaughtered a goat and splattered its blood on Joseph’s coat, which they then offered to Jacob as ‘proof’ that Joseph had been killed by wild beasts. While Aaron had committed his sin personally, the rest of Israel was generations removed from the acts of Joseph and his brothers. How could they be held accountable for their forbears’ sin?
Maimonides gives us a part of the answer, and psychology gives us the rest. In his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides wrote: “When we commit a sin, we, our children, and the children of our children require atonement for that sin by some kind of service analogous to the sin committed. If a person has sinned in respect to property, that person must liberally spend his or her property in the service of God; … If one went astray in respect to one’s moral conduct, one must oppose his or her failings by keeping to the opposite extreme.” (Guide for the Perplexed. III:6) Maimonides first reminds us of the biblical principle that when we sin, not only are we damaged by the act, but also our descendants (more on this in the next paragraph). Then he elucidates the principle that to truly change our ways, we must use the specific agency of our transgression to right our wrong behaviors. Aaron offers a calf to God to atone for building a calf-shaped idol. Israel, the descendants of Jacob’s sons (including the descendants of Joseph) offer a goat to atone for their ancestors transgressions.
So how can the Israelites be held accountable for the sins of their ancestors? They can’t. However, they are accountable for themselves. Psychology has taught us the power of “past programming.” At a very young age, we learn and internalize the behaviors of our parents, grandparents, siblings and extended family. This is called “past programming” and explains why behavioral cycles, whether abusive or life affirming, continue generation after generation within our families. We are not defined by our past programming, but it exerts a profound influence upon us. If we wish to create a new behavioral pattern, it takes the difficult work of recognizing what we want to change, becoming aware when we fall into our old patterns, and then willing ourselves to consistently change our behaviors.
While we don’t like to admit it, our ancestral family from the generation of Abraham through Joseph, was seriously dysfunctional. There is no reason to assume that our experience in Egypt would have changed things for the better. Indeed, we know from the text that the Israelites in the Wilderness still struggled with the root cause of their ancestors’ sins. Joseph’s brothers were afraid for, and probably also of, their father. The Israelites-suddenly-freed-from-generations-of-slavery were afraid of just about everything they encountered. Offering a goat in atonement to God is both a symbol and a new beginning. It reminds us that we have a better choice, and that with God we need not fear.
Making this kind of change is anything but easy, and the generation that left Egypt ultimately failed. However, this special sacrificial rite laid some of the groundwork for the next generation – those who would grow up free and eventually inherit the Promised Land. They broke the old pattern and established themselves anew. From their time until ours, each generation is given the same opportunity.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras