In this week's Torah portion, the opening ceremonies of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) are about to commence. After months of careful craftsmanship this unique physical structure occupies center stage as the entire nation comes to witness the dramatic return of Hashem's presence.
In this week's Torah portion, the opening ceremonies of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) are about to commence. After months of careful craftsmanship this unique physical structure occupies center stage as the entire nation comes to witness the dramatic return of Hashem's presence. All eyes are riveted on Aaron, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), as he prepares himself to offer the first sacrificial offerings on behalf of himself and the nation.
Suddenly, as Aaron approached the altar, it mysteriously resembled a golden calf. Was this the hand of the Satan trying to distract him, or perhaps some kind of hidden message for Aaron to decipher in the few seconds before undertaking his mission? Aaron immediately began searching for the answer.
The sages tell us that when a person is on the threshold of a great spiritual event, such as we have here, heavenly tribunals convene to scrutinize the worthiness of the individual to experience the great spiritual benefit associated with completing the undertaking. These forces are awakened by the Satan who functions as the chief accuser of Mankind, searching for any misdeed or pretext to prevent the achievement from taking place. The greater the event and the greater the person, the greater the Satan's effort to foil the accomplishment.
Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, a great Torah scholar and leader of the past generation, offers us a deeper analysis of Aaron's dilemma and the spiritual dynamics surrounding this crucial point in time. He states that these offerings were designed to achieve atonement for Aaron and the Jewish people for various transgressions, traces of misdeeds, or even the mere appearance of sins which have taken place in history, including the sale of Joseph and the sin of the golden calf. In order to properly offer these crucial korbanot (offerings), Aaron would have to revisit his role in the golden calf episode, to make certain that his own repentance contained no flaws and was complete.
Rabbi Teitelbaum suggests the following scenario to explain Aaron's role in the sin of the golden calf: Aaron realized that the nation was deeply troubled by Moses' failure to return on schedule. Without a leader, panic seemed certain. One individual, Chur, was already killed by the restless masses. Aaron recalled the near tragic consequences which engulfed Joseph and his brothers regarding the issue of leadership. Aaron detected those very same seeds of hatred and envy among the groups gathered before him. Had the people acted in a more disciplined fashion, Aaron could have suggested a temporary substitute, such as Nachshon, Caleb, or even himself. Aaron, however, not wishing to provoke further conflict, did not assert himself but instead opted to stall for time by suggesting the time-consuming construction of a golden calf.
Rabbi Teitelbaum maintains that the strange vision of the altar appearing in the form of a golden calf was intended to convey the idea that feelings of unworthiness or humility may be inappropriate at times when decisive and courageous action are called for. This lesson in humility was important for Aaron to consider on his approach to the altar. Just as it would now be inappropriate for him to shy away from his present duty, perhaps then, also, a more assertive role may have been in order.
Another explanation might be that Aaron's conduct with the golden calf was entirely justified under the circumstances. His present hesitation to approach may instead be based on a fear from being judged on that highest and most stringent level of din, or judgment, which refuses to forgive even the slightest infraction. On this level, Aaron feared that since his actions with the golden calf could be misconstrued by the casual onlooker as being sinful, the measure of strict judgment would therefore hold him accountable for his conduct.
Having confronted his past, Aaron was now free to focus on the awesome task of seeking atonement for himself and for his beloved people. The key to teshuvah (repentance) is the ability to honestly evaluate one's deeds, time and time again, searching for any traces of impropriety, which may take the form of a golden calf. These traces can live on for generations, causing damage if left unrepented. The greatness of Aaron, and of every person, is the ability to recognize one's strengths and weaknesses, to confront even the most sensitive of issues, and the ability to walk humbly during life's greatest moments.
Steve Lerner writes from Atlanta.
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