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Parashat Tzav 5784

Overcoming Our Past

March 26, 2024
by Rabbi Greg Schindler (’09)

Well everybody’s got a secret, son
Something they just can’t face
Some spend their whole lives trying to keep it
They carry it with them every step that they take
‘till one day, they just cut it loose
Cut it loose or let it drag ‘em down.

Bruce Springsteen, Darkness on the Edge of Town

Sometimes a single word in the parashah clues the rabbis in to a deeper meaning. In this week’s Parashah, Parashat Tzav, we read about the inauguration ceremony for the Mishkan – the portable Sanctuary in the desert – and the priests who would serve it. In describing the ceremony to anoint Aaron to his role as Kohen Gadol (High Priest), the Torah says:

“G-d spoke to Moses, saying: Take (קַ֤ח) Aaron along with his sons, and the vestments, the anointing oil, the bull of sin offering, the two rams, and the basket of unleavened bread; and assemble the community leadership at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.” (Lev. 8:1-3)

Why, the rabbis wonder, does G-d command Moses to “take (קַ֤ח)” Aaron? After all, Aaron has been involved in quite a few G-d-instructed activities, starting with G-d calling to him to meet Moses in the wilderness (Exod. 4:27), to their many encounters with Pharaoh. In these prior situations, G-d generally spoke to both of them (e.g., Exod. 7:8) or said to Moses, “Say to Aaron…” (e.g., Exod. 7:19). Why would Moses need to “take” Aaron?

And what does it mean to “take” Aaron, anyway? Rashi tells us that Moses was being told to “Win him over with fine words and draw him on” (Rashi to Lev. 8:2). Why does Aaron need to be won over to assume the role G-d that has chosen for him?

Aaron’s reluctance continues when he is supposed to go up to the Altar eight days later (on the first of Nissan) and cause the Presence of G-d to appear:

Then Moses said to Aaron: “Come forward to the altar and sacrifice your sin offering and your burnt offering, making expiation for yourself and for the people; and sacrifice the people’s offering and make expiation for them, as G-d has commanded.” (Lev. 9:7)

Again, the rabbis wonder, why does Moses need to tell Aaron to “come forward… as G-d has (already) commanded”?  Rashi explains that, “Aaron was reticent and feared to go there. Moses therefore said to him ‘Why are you reticent? For this purpose have you been selected!’”

Yet another puzzle: After Aaron has performed all the rites of inauguration, we read, “Moses and Aaron then went inside the Tent of Meeting” (Lev. 9:23). Why did they go inside at this pivotal moment, with all the Congregation in attendance outside?

Rashi offers two views. One, is that they needed to perform the incense offering inside the Tent. Second, is an insight into Aaron’s psychological state:

“When Aaron saw that all the sacrifices had been offered and all the rites performed, and yet the Shekhinah had not descended for Israel, since the heavenly fire had not fallen to consume the sacrifice, he was uneasy in mind and said: I feel certain that the Holy One, Blessed Be, is angry with me and that it is on my account that G-d’s Presence has not descended for Israel. He therefore said to Moses: ‘My brother Moses! Do you act thus with me: you know that I have entered into this matter at your bidding and yet I have been put to shame!’ Moses at once entered the tent with him and they offered prayer and the Shekhinah descended for Israel.” (Rashi to Lev. 9:23)

So now we know what’s been bothering Aaron: Guilt.

But guilt for what?

You probably guessed it. The golden calf.

In Exod. 32, we read:

“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that fellow Moses—the man who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.’ Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’ And all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. This he took (וַיִּקַּ֣ח) from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a molten calf.”

The Midrash picks up on this use of “take” (ִקַּ֣ח) in both the story of the calf and in this week’s parashah, saying “Let the ‘taking’ here atone for the ‘taking’ there.” (Vayikra Rabbah 10:4)

After the episode of the calf, Moses ascended the mountain for a further 80 days, successfully imploring G-d to forgive the nation:

“For how shall it be known that Your people have gained Your favor unless You go with us, so that we may be distinguished, Your people and I, from every people on the face of the earth?

And G-d said to Moses, “I will also do this thing that you have asked; for you have truly gained My favor and I have singled you out by name.” (Exod. 33:16-17)

And Aaron, too, was forgiven by G-d. As Moses recounts many years later, “G-d was angry enough with Aaron to have destroyed him; so I also interceded for Aaron at that time… for that sinful thing you had made, the calf.” (Deut. 9:20-21)

When, exactly, did the episode of the calf occur in relation to the activities of this week’s parashah? Let’s take a look at the traditional chronology:

·        On the 17th of Tammuz, the Tablets were broken because of the calf;

·        Almost 3 months later, on Yom Kippur (the 10th of Tishrei) G-d reconciled with Israel;

·        A further 5 ½ months after that, on the 1st of Nissan, the Mishkan was set up (our parashah).

(Rashi to Exod. 31:18)

So here we are, on the first of Nissan, and Aaron is still berating himself over an incident that took place eight and a half months before, and which G-d forgave over five months ago!

Yes, G-d had forgiven Aaron for his misdeed.

Only problem was, Aaron could not forgive himself.

Guilt affects us all. If it inspires us to do teshuvah and change our ways, then it has its place. But, as Mary-Frances O’Connor tells us in her penetrating book, The Grieving Brain, when we find ourselves stuck in an endless loop of rumination, guilt becomes harmful.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (z”l) talks about shame cultures and guilt cultures. Citing Ruth Benedict’s book, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, he explains that, in shame cultures, like Ancient Greece, what you do defines you. But in guilt cultures, like Judaism, there is a distinction made between the doer and the deed. For this reason, atonement and repentance are central in guilt cultures; the act was wrong, but our character is not indelibly stained. Every morning, we attest to this belief in the prayer: “Elohai Neshamah”: “My G-d, the soul which You placed in me is pure.”

The story is told of two monks, an old one and a younger one, who were walking together. They came to a rushing river, where a very young woman feared to cross. She asked the monks if they could help her. The young monk looked skeptically at the old one (since, as monks, they had taken a vow never to touch a woman). To his surprise, the old monk said to the woman, “Let me carry you across.” He put the woman on his back, crossed the river, and placed her down on the other side. The young woman thanked him, and the monks continued on their way.

Finally, after many hours, the young monk could no longer contain himself. “I thought we were supposed to avoid women,” he said. “Why did you just do that?”

“Oh, you mean the woman way back there?” answered the old monk. “I put her down long ago. Are you still carrying her?”

Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Greg Schindler (AJR 2009). While at AJR, he was honored to serve as President of the Student Association. He is a community rabbi in Westport, CT where he conducts classes in Talmud and Tanakh. He has led Children’s High Holiday services for over 20 years. Each year, he writes and directs a new Yom Kippur comedic play based on the Book of Jonah, including “Jonah-gan’s Island”. “Batmensch”, “SpongeJonah SquarePants”, “Horton Hears an Oy” and more.