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Posted on March 21, 2024 (5784) By Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein | Series: | Level:

He called to Moshe. Hashem spoke to him from the Ohel Moed, saying: Speak to the Bnei Yisrael, and say to them…[1]

There is a lot of speaking and saying before we get to the final message. Clearly, besides taking the instructions about the details of korbanos to the Bnei Yisrael, Moshe was to deliver a preliminary message to them. Rashi explains this to be, “dominating words: tell them that it is only on their account that Hashem speaks to me.” This is difficult to understand. These words hardly express Moshe pitting himself against them, and effectively subjugating them. To the contrary. They are quite flattering to the Bnei Yisrael; they diminish Moshe’s own importance, and credit the people as being the power behind his prophecy.

To add to the confusion, two positions in a midrash[2] dispute the matter. One sees the community – not Moshe – as the purpose for the Divine Word revealing itself in the Ohel Moed. The second insists that it was for Moshe’s benefit. Which is it?

The key to understanding all of this can be found in a few pesukim in Tehillim.[3] “The korban that pleases G-d is a humble spirit. A broken and contrite heart, dear G-d, You never reject. May You delight in doing good for Tziyon. Please build the walls of Yerushalayim. Then You will be happy with sincere offerings…Bulls will again be offered on Your altar.”

There is much to unpack here. The second sentence seems to be a gratuitous repetition of the first. The last line indicates that the ones that preceded it speak of a time when bulls were not offered on the mizbeach. How’s that?

These pesukim, I believe, deal with a time in which there is no beis hamikdosh, and actual korbanos are not brought. What substitutes during the periods of exile? Tzadikim, those with a humble spirit. Hashem takes them from us in place of korbanos. In turn, our response to those deaths should be broken and contrite hearts, which He will never reject. (Although we ordinarily emphasize that the Shechinah cannot dwell where there is depression, that is true only of our mood in general prayer. When a tzadik is taken from us, it is specifically our brokenness that invites in the Shechinah!) Thus, the second phrase in the pasuk in Tehillim is not a repetition. It refers to a different group of broken hearts – those of the people, mourning the loss of a tzadik!

Now, the sacrifice of the life of a tzadik is an enormous loss. But when the sins of the people stand confronted by midas hadin – particularly when there is no beis hamikdosh, and therefore no possibility of bringing the prescribed offerings – the tzadik becomes a principal means of atonement. We therefore ask Hashem to rebuild Yerushalayim and the beis hamikdosh, so that the korbanos specified by the Torah can once again be offered on the altar, thus sparing the tzadikim!

The tzadik’s relationship with korbanos is therefore a mixed bag. On the one hand, he doesn’t really need them for his own kapparah. He possesses the “humble spirit” that Hashem considers to be a super-korban. (Certainly this is true of Moshe, the most humble of humans, ever!)

On the other hand, the tzadik desperately needs korbanos, because when they are not brought, he might become the substitute offering, and lose his life! So both opinions in the midrash are correct. The korbanos were only needed by the rest of the people, but not Moshe. Yet, they particularly served Moshe, lest he be taken as atonement for the generation. And Moshe’s words to them were harsh and dominating: “Were it not for all your sins, I would have no personal need for the korbanos. Now that you have sinned, I need them for my survival!”


  1. Vayikra 1:1-2
  2. Yalkut Shimoni #431
  3. Tehillim 51:19-21