The Parsha begins on the 1st day of Nissan, 2449. As part of the inauguration of Aharon and his four sons into the priesthood, they had already been sequestered in the Mishkan for seven days. The 1st day of Nissan was the eighth and last day of their inauguration process and the 1st day that the Mishkan was to be fully functional. The offerings that celebrated the inauguration of the Mishkan are detailed in the beginning of Shimini along with the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu.
The first Korbonos – sacrifices to be offered were performed by Aharon, with the help of his sons; and the very first Korban was a Chatas – a sin offering, comprised of an Egel – a calf. Rashi references the Medresh Tanchuma that explains that the reason for the sin offering of a calf was to affect atonement for Aharon’s part in facilitating the sin of the Golden Calf.
Before Aharon began doing the service the verse states, “Moshe said to Aharon, come near to the Altar and perform the service.” Rashi references the Torahs Kohanim that explains why Aharon had to be summoned by Moshe to perform the service, though he had already been commanded to do so. Rashi explains that Aharon was embarrassed to assume the role of the High Priest because of the part he had played in the Golden Calf. Therefore, Moshe had to say to his brother, “Do not be embarrassed (though you had a part in the Golden Calf) this is why you were chosen!”
From the two Rashi’s referenced it is obvious that Aharon’s selection as the Kohain Gadol, as well as the inaugural service of the Mishkan, were in direct response to the sin of the Golden Calf.
The climax of the inaugural service on the eighth day was the fire that G-d sent down from heaven to light the Alter and consume the offerings. At the very same time that the fire descended from heaven Nadav and Avihu, the two elder sons of Aharon, offered their “Aish Zarah-strange fire” and died. The juxtaposition of Aharon’s selection as the High Priest to the deaths of Nadav and Avihu was intended to focus us on the why Aharon was deserving of the position and why his sons were not. Therefore, we can assume that if Aharon was chosen to be the Kohain Gadol because he had sinned with the Golden Calf and then repented, then the sin that rendered Nadav and Avihu unfit to be Kohanim was in some way related to the sin of the Golden Calf.
Following the deaths of Nadav and Avihu the Kohanim were commanded not to perform the service in the Mishkan after having drunk wine. The placement of this prohibition immediately following the deaths of Aharon’s sons is discussed by all the commentaries, but it is logical to assume that it too is somehow connected to Aharon’s selection and Nadav and Avihu’s deaths. Therefore, it is logical to assume that the prohibition against drinking wine before participating in the Mishkan’s service; the deaths of Nadav and Avihu at the time of the Mishkan’s inauguration; and Aharon’s selection to the office of High Priest are all related to the sin of the Golden Calf.
What part did Aharon play in the sin of the Golden Calf? A study of the story and the Rashis in Shemos 32 reveals the fatal heroism of Aharon’s motives. The Talmud in Sanhedrin 7a tells us that Aharon’s nephew, Chur the son of Miriam, had attempted to stop Jews from losing faith in Moshe’s return and had had been killed by the confused and terrified crowd. Having witnessed the death of Chur, Aharon feared that he too might suffer the same fate if he tried to challenge the crowd. His fear was not for his own death, but for the unforgiving wrath of G-d against the nation, had he also been killed. He feared that G-d would not forgive the people and the nation would have to be destroyed. Therefore, he decided to take an active role in creating the Golden Calf hoping that he could delay the people until Moshe returned.
At best, Moshe would return and the whole crisis would be averted. At worst, if Moshe did not come back in time: 1. G-d’s anger would be directed against himself for his part in its formation, rather than against the people. 2. If the people did worship the calf, it would be a sin of idolatry, rather than murder, which G-d would forgive them for. Therefore, Aharon chose compromise and manipulation rather than confrontation.
From the perspective of Aharon’s character that the Talmud describes as, “One who loved peace and pursued peace,” (Rashi, Bamidbar: 20:29) Aharon’s strategy in dealing with the crisis was consistent, However, it is clear from Moshe’s criticism of Aharon, “What did this people do to you that you brought a grievous sin upon it? (Shemos 32:32), that Aharon was held accountable for his reasoning and strategy.
What other strategy could Aharon have devised given the circumstances of Chur’s death and his fears for the future of the nation? The answer is in contrasting Aharon’s strategy to the way Moshe responded upon descending from Mt. Sinai. Moshe immediately rallied the tribe of Levi, and without preamble or discussion punished the sinners. Aharon’s mistake not realizing that he was not Chur. He was Aharon the brother of Miriam and Moshe, the son of Yocheved and Amram. He was Aharon, the most beloved and trusted man in the entire nation (Rashi, Divarim 34:8). Had he forcefully and angrily confronted the nation’s defection and failing trust, they would have listened! The entire incident of the Golden Calf would have been averted! The nation would have learned an important lesson regarding their own vulnerability and the frailty of their newfound faith. The first Luchos would not have been broken and G-d’s overtly manifest presence would not have withdrawn from within the midst of the nation. The Mishkan would not have had to been built and the entire history of the relationship between the Jews and the other nations would have been positive and loving, rather than hateful and tragic.
As we know, because the sin of the Golden Calf did occur, G-d withdrew His overt presence from within the nation and the Mishkan was constructed. The Mishkan, and then the Bais Hamikdash, became the means for the nation to deal with their fundamentally flawed faith and repair their relationship with G-d. The Mishkan housed the Mizbeach, which was the most direct way for the people and the individual to express their desire to be close to G-d. It was the focus of their repentance and their thanksgiving. It was the primary means for elevating their broken spirits and actualizing their devotion and passion. It became the fountain from which they could drink salvation and attain forgiveness. The fire that always burned upon the Alter, and the rising smoke of the burning offerings, reminded humanity that G-d too desires closeness and intimacy with His children. G-d wants to forgive us.
In selecting the first Kohain Gadol, G-d chose Aharon. Aharon, whose love for the people knew no bounds; Aharon, who willingly sacrificed himself for the sake of his beloved nation; Aharon, who had sinned out of love, and then had to learn that he too could be forgiven. This singular human being who only craved “Shalom-peace and wholeness.” Was the only individual worthy of effecting continuous forgiveness for G-d’s chosen nation. However, Aharon’s sin was because he lacked faith in himself and in the position he occupied in the hearts of the nation. Aharon needed to learn from his brother, “the most humble of all men upon the earth,” that humility too has its limitations. There comes a time when compromise and sensitivity destroys peace rather than preserving it.
On the first day of Nissan, three thousand three hundred and nine years ago, Aharon was commanded to inaugurate the Mishkan and bring his sin offering. At first, he could not do it. At first, he was beset by fears of inadequacy because he had been the architect of the Golden Calf. It had been his wrong decision that had altered history for all time. Therefore, Moshe summoned his extraordinary brother and said, “Aharon, come forward and assume your rightful position. No one else in all of history, including myself, is as worthy of being the first Kohain Gadol! Who better than you to affect Shalom-peace and wholeness between G-d and His children? Absolute love and concern for the safety of the nation motivated your sin at the time of the Golden Calf. Your sin was unintentional (that is why he was commanded to bring a Chatas and not an Asham). Yes, you are still held responsible for your decision, but G-d Himself has testified that your intentions were noble and pure. My dearest brother, come forward and assume your rightful position! This is why you were chosen!”
The Kohanim represented the people. As such, they had to lose their individuality in their capacity as priests. The clothing they wore and the utensils they used during the service belonged to the nation. It was forbidden for a Kohain to use anything private or personal. Aharon was the preeminent example of an individual who lived his life to serve the people. On the other hand, the commentaries point out that Nadav and Avihu used their own fire-pans, with coals from their personal hearths to bring their fateful offerings. They were motivated by their own passions and desires to be closer to G-d and lost sight of the fact that their designation as Kohanim was to serve the nation, not their own needs, no matter how seemingly noble and pure those needs might have appeared.
The Talmud records that Nadav and Avihu were potentially as great as Moshe and Aharon. Yet, their relationship with G-d was fatally flawed. Had they been true in their service to G-d they would have first asked their teachers, Moshe and Aharon, whether or not they should proceed with their inspired offerings. That would have revealed a core humility and desire to serve the nation and G-d, regardless of their personal needs and desires. The very nobility and humility of spirit that was the hallmark of their father and uncle, was lacking in them.
Following their deaths, G-d prohibited the Kohanim from performing the service in the Mishkan if they had drunk wine. We are well aware that alcohol is a depressant that allows the drinker to be self-centered and selfish. Inhibitions fall to the way side and the drunk feels empowered to do or say whatever he wants. Therefore, a Kohain who must be completely focused on serving the people and G-d and must lose his individuality must never officiate in the Mishkan if intoxicated. Otherwise, he puts himself in danger of suffering the same fate as Nadav and Avihu. Just as they had died for being selfish and self-centered, so too would a Kohain die if he had imbibed wine before serving in the Mishkan.
The sin of Aharon in constructing the Golden Calf was not the same sin as the people who had worshiped the Golden Calf. His guilt was the unintentional sin of having made the wrong decision out of fear for their safety. His fear for the future of the nation motivated him to lose faith in his own abilities to best serve G-d and the people. At no time did Aharon exhibit concern for himself or his own safety. On the other hand, Nadav and Avihu, as great as they were, sinned because they were motivated by what they wanted and desired, rather than by what G-d commanded and the nation deserved.
Copyright © 2000 by Rabbi Aron Tendler and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, Valley Village, CA.