April 9, 2018
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #1113, Parsha Thought, Shmini


This week we read of Moses’ instruction to Aaron on the day the Mishkan was to be dedicated:

“Take for yourself a young bull as a sin offering… You should speak to the children of Israel and say, ‘Take a goat as a sin offering… and a calf… for today G-d is going to appear to you.”

Both Aaron and the children of Israel had to bring a calf to atone for their involvement in the sin of the Golden Calf. But, why did the children of Israel have to also bring a goat as atonement? And why did they have to bring the goat and not Aaron?

The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni) explains that the goat was atonement for the sin of their ancestors who sold Joseph into slavery. To cover up their crime they took his special coat, dipped it into the blood of a goat, and told their father Jacob that Joseph was devoured by a wild beast.

In the words of the Midrash:

“Moses said to them, you have to atone for what you did in the beginning and what you have done at the end. In the beginning they slaughtered a goat, and in the end they made a Golden Calf. Let the goat atone for the sin of the goat and the calf atone for the sin of the calf.”

From the Midrash’s answer it emerges that Aaron only had a share in the latter sin of the Golden Calf; he therefore would only need the offering of a calf to atone for that sin. By contrast, the Jewish people had to also bring a goat to atone for the sale of Joseph by his brothers.

The distinction between Aaron and the children of Israel is problematic. Aaron was a descendant of Levi who, together with his brother Shimon, was actually the most instrumental in the plot against Joseph. Why did Aaron not need to atone for that sin as well?

Another question can be raised: The Midrash implies that the two sins—the sin of the sale of Joseph and the construction of the Golden Calf—were linked. The Midrash refers to these two sins as the one that they committed in the beginning and the one they committed at the end, implying that these are two ends of one spectrum.

It is reasonable to assume that the Midrash considered the sin of the sale of Joseph to be the source of and the root cause of the latter sin of the Golden Calf. But on the surface they seem to be of two distinct characters: The former is a sin against another person; the latter is a sin directed against G-d. We must understand how these two sins are related.


The answer given to the first question is that Aaron did not need to bring a goat to atone for the sale of Joseph because he had already expiated this sin by his actions.

To explain:

The sale of Joseph by his brothers was precipitated by their jealousy. This started when Jacob showed favoritism towards Joseph by giving him a kesoness passim, a special garment of fine wool. Jacob treated him as if he was the bechor - the firstborn. And while it was true that he was Rachel’s firstborn, Jacob had already fathered children from Leah; Jacob’s true firstborn was actually Reuven. The sibling resentment was exacerbated when Joseph flaunted his dominant role as the firstborn by recounting dreams in which his brothers bowed down to him.

Their corrosive jealousy led to the attempted murder and sale of Joseph into slavery in Egypt.

This interfamily dynamic explains the connection between the sale of Joseph and the construction of the Golden Calf. Both sins were dramatic manifestations of an absence of unity. The former was a lack of unity between Joseph and his brothers and the latter arose from a lack of appreciation by the Jewish people of G-d’s absolute oneness.

One of the primary ways to atone for a sin is to behave in an opposite way to that in which one had initially behaved, under similar circumstances.

For example, if one sinned by stealing, one atones for it by being in the same situation, where the temptation and possibility of sin is present, and nevertheless resists the temptation and refrain from theft.

Similarly, if one had to atone for the sin of selling Joseph, one had to go to the root cause of that sin and reverse it under similar circumstances.

The root cause was jealousy and the circumstance of that rivalry was the promotion of a younger sibling over his older brother.

This is precisely the situation that existed with Moses and Aaron. Aaron was the older of the two brothers. He was also eminently qualified to be the leader and spokesman of the Jewish people. Yet, G-d selected Moses to fill that position with Aaron as his assistant. Aaron could have harbored resentment to Moses and begrudgingly accepted his secondary position. But Aaron, the Torah testifies, went to the opposite extreme and “rejoiced in his heart” when he heard that Moses was chosen. There was not even a scintilla of resentment in Aaron’s heart.

Moreover, not only had Aaron personally rectified the sin of jealousy, Aaron countered the spirit of division and discord amongst the Jewish people, the regrettable legacy of the division between Joseph and his brothers.

Our Sages, in Ethics of the Fathers (Chapter 1:12) which we begin reading this week, tell us that Aaron, “Loved peace, pursued peace, loved all people and drew them close to the Torah.” The Talmud describes how he would bend the truth slightly to get husbands and wives, as well as erstwhile enemies, to reconcile.

Aaron epitomized the highest point of unity to which one can aspire and healed the breaches within the Jewish community.

Aaron thus had already fully atoned for his ancestor Levi’s involvement in the sale of his brother Joseph and therefore did not need to bring the goat offering.

The rest of the Jewish community, however, had to atone for that sin by bringing the goat offering.

Although both Aaron and the Jewish people atoned for the sin of selling Joseph, they did so with a significant difference. Aaron reversed the entire dynamic of division caused by jealousy and he therefore did not need to bring a sacrifice. The rest of the Jewish people gained atonement, but they did not succeed in uprooting jealousy and divisiveness from their midst.


This distinction is reflected in the divergent roles of Aaron and the rest of the Jewish people. Aaron was given the responsibility to bless the entire Jewish nation. Before a Kohen, a descendant of Aaron, blesses the congregation, he recites a preliminary blessing, in which he expresses gratitude to G-d “for sanctifying him with the holiness of Aaron to bless His nation Israel with love.” This blessing can only come from an Aaron-type, who is imbued with the love of his fellow.


Jealousy, and the strife that it engenders, has tragically been one of the most destructive forces in Jewish history. Arguably more damage was suffered through internal discord than that which we endured at the hands of our enemies. Indeed, we became vulnerable to outside threats precisely because of our internal divisions.

The question we must ask, then, is when will this destructive phenomenon come to an end?

Maimonides provides us with the answer to this vexing question.

At the very end of his treatment of the laws concerning Moshiach he writes that, among other promises: “In that era there will be no more jealousy and rivalry.”

Bu this raises a follow-up question: How does this change occur? If this is part of human nature, from the time Cain killed Abel and Joseph’s brothers sold Joseph, how can this change? Will it require an overt miracle, where G-d must change human nature?

Maimonides provides the rationale for this radical transformation:

“…The occupation of the entire world will be solely to know G-d. Therefore, the Jews will be great sages and know the hidden matters, grasping the knowledge of their Creator according to the full extent of human potential, as Isaiah (11:9) states: ‘The world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d as the waters cover the ocean bed.’”

The Messianic Age will introduce the reality of G-d and His unity in our lives as never before. As we bask in this G-dly awareness, there will be no room for division, jealousy or rivalry.

This Messianic dynamic will not be entirely new, for it already existed in Aaron and his descendants, whose priestly blessing, said with love, erased the negative effects of the sale of Joseph by his brothers. Aaron was capable of reaching this level of unity because he was imbued with the unifying presence of the Sh’china. In the Messianic Age, this dynamic of unity will be fully revealed and manifested by all.

In truth, we don’t have to wait to the advanced stages of the Messianic Age to experience this unity. We are a privileged generation to whom the deepest mystical knowledge of Chassidus has been revealed, a taste of the teachings of Moshiach, which bring to light G-d’s all-encompassing presence in our lives.

Because of our generation’s heightened G-d-consciousness, we all have the capacity to taste the sweetness of true unity.

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (
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