Parashat Shmini - Taking Responsibility
מרן רה"י הרב שבתי סבתו | כב אדר ב' התשעט | 29.03.2019
Rabbi Shabtai Sabato
הרב שבתי סבתו
The Divine Attribute of "Great Compassion"
We read in Parashat Shmini that Moshe was displeased with Aharon's sons Elazar and Itamar and the way they performed the Temple service. Moshe said:
וְאתָהּ נָתַן לָכֶם לָשֵׂאת אֶת עֲוֹן הָעֵדָה לְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיהֶם לִפְנֵי י-הוה.
…it has been given to you to bear the community's sin
and atone for them before G-d. (Vayikra 10,17)
We read and do not understand: Who bears the community's sin? What does it mean to bear the community's sin? We will therefore seek, in this article, to understand the roots of atonement, purity, and the Thirteen Divine Attributes of mercy.
One of these attributes, which we recite often in our prayers, is that of rav chessed, "great compassion." The Gmara explains it as follows:
The school of Beit Hillel says: This means that G-d tilts the Divine verdict towards compassion. (Tr. Rosh HaShanah, p. 17a)
This indicates that there is a type of "scale of merits and sins" on which the weights of both sides start out equal, and one side is then tilted – that is, G-d gives more consideration to the merits and causes that side to prevail. However, there are two different ways of causing one side to outweigh the other: Either by adding weight to one side, or removing from the other. As the Talmud there continues:
- Elazar says that G-d conquers the sin… R. Yosi bar Chanina says that G-d raises up the sin.
Rashi explains: According to R. Elazar, Hashem presses down on the side of the merits, giving them extra weight and strength. R. Yosi bar Chanina, on the other hand, says that Hashem raises up the side of the sins, thus leaving the merits to fall downward and emerge victorious. How can we understand this allegory of a heavenly "scale of weights" and the two different approaches? The Talmud explains that the two Sages differ regarding the following words of the Prophet Micha:
מִי אֵ-ל כָּמוֹךָ נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן...
יָשׁוּב יְרַחֲמֵנוּ יִכְבֹּשׁ עֲוֹנתֵינוּ וְתַשְׁלִיךְ בִּמְצֻלוֹת יָם כָּל חַטֹּאתָם
Who is a G-d like You, raising up sin…
He will return and have compassion on us, will put down our sins,
and will throw into the depths of the sea all their iniquities. (Micha 7,19)
- Elazar understands the words put down our sins to mean that Hashem gives the merits extra strength. R. Yosi emphasizes the beginning of the verse, which speaks of raising up sin: Hashem lifts away our sins, and the merits triumph. Both require explanation.
Let us begin with "raising up sin." The Torah says about one who neglected to bring the Pesach offering: "The man will carry/bear/raise his sin." (Bamidbar 9,13). It does not mean that the man will literally carry his sin – but rather that he will bear the responsibility for it, i.e., he will pay its price. That is, whoever is directly responsible for a sin is the one who suffers its consequences; one who is only indirectly responsible will pay only in accordance with his responsibility. A child, for instance, is not yet ready to accept any responsibility for his actions; this is why he is exempt from mitzvot.
Accordingly, when the Prophet Micha says that Hashem "carries our sin," it means that He is prepared to share in the responsibility for it. How precisely can G-d share the blame for man's misdeeds?
The Prophet Elijah, Eliyahu HaNavi, alludes to an answer in his famous prayer on Mount Carmel. The worshipers of Baal stood opposite him, praying that their false god would set fire to the offering they wished to dedicate to him. When they finally gave up, Eliyahu beseeched G-d to send down a Heavenly fire to consume the sacrifice he had placed on the altar. G-d did so, proving to the skeptics that Hashem is true and that idol worship is worthless. Eliyahu phrased his prayer as follows:
עֲנֵנִי יְהֹוָה עֲנֵנִי וְיֵדְעוּ הָעָם הַזֶּה כִּי אַתָּה יְהֹוָה הָאֱ-לֹהִים וְאַתָּה הֲסִבֹּתָ אֶת לִבָּם אֲחֹרַנִּית
Respond to me, O G-d, respond, and the people shall know that you are G-d the Lord,
for You have turned their heart backwards. (Kings I 18,37)
"It was You, Hashem, " Eliyahu pleads, "Who created the force of evil in the world, which leads people to sin. Therefore, please bear some of the indirect responsibility for Israel's sins, thus relieving them of some of it."
The Prophet Micha affirms this approach, in the name of G-d Himself:
אֹסְפָה הַצֹּלֵעָה וְהַנִּדָּחָה אֲקַבֵּצָה וַאֲשֶׁר הֲרֵעֹתִי
I will gather the lame, the driven-out, and those to whom I have done bad. (Micha 4,6)
Hashem admits: "I created that which causes Israel to sin, and I must therefore make amends, gathering the injured and sick remnants of the flock of Israel from around the world." (based on Tr. Brachot, p. 31b)
We now understand R. Yosi ben R. Chanina's position, that G-d "carries our sins" and bears partial responsibility for them. Let us proceed to R. Elazar's approach, based on the second phrase in Micha's prophecy praising G-d for conquering – that is, hiding, or covering – our sins. How so?
Let us look at Moshe Rabbeinu's prayer for Israel after the grievous Sin of the Golden Calf. In Parashat Ekev, we read:
זְכֹר לַעֲבָדֶיךָ לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב אַל תֵּפֶן אֶל קְשִׁי הָעָם הַזֶּה וְאֶל רִשְׁעוֹ וְאֶל חַטָּאתוֹ
Remember for Your servants Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, pay no heed to the stubbornness of this nation, nor to its wickedness or its iniquity. (Dvarim 9,27)
How can Moshe ask Hashem to ignore evil deeds that were actually perpetrated? We must explain that Moshe is asking G-d to concentrate on the great deeds of our forefathers, thus strengthening these acts and dwarfing their descendants' sins. That is, by concentrating on merits and good deeds, sins are covered and hidden. This is how R. Elazar explains the concept of conquering/covering our sins.
Similarly, the wicked Bilam was forced to bless Israel by citing G-d's special relationship with them, in which He focuses on their good deeds and overlooks their sins: G-d does not look at wrongdoing in Jacob, and sees no vice in Israel. (Bamidbar 23,21)
We thus see that there are two ways in which Hashem "tilts" the scales with compassion in Israel's favor: One is by declaring that He is sharing indirect responsibility for the sins, and the other is by concentrating on the good deeds and thus overlooking the wrongdoing. Both of these methods of Divine forgiveness are described by King David in his Book of Psalms:
רָצִיתָ י-הוה אַרְצֶךָ שַׁבְתָּ שְׁבִית יַעֲקֹב.
נָשָׂאתָ עֲוֹן עַמֶּךָ כִּסִּיתָ כָל חַטָּאתָם סֶלָה
You have graced Your Land… You have carried the sin of Your Nation,
You have covered all their sins. (Tehillim 85,2-3)
Hashem either "carries" Israel's sins, or "covers" them.
Atonement and Purity
This foundation we have laid will guide us in understanding this famous verse from our Yom Kippur prayers:
כִּי בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם מִכֹּל חַטּאֹתֵיכֶם לִפְנֵי י-הוה תִּטְהָרוּ
For on this day Hashem will atone for you,
to purify you from all your sins, Before G-d you will be purified. (Vayikra 16,30)
Let us note two phrases: will atone for you, and to purify you. The first is related to the word כפורת, the kaporet covering the Holy Ark – implying "covering" the sin. The second is טהרה, taharah, meaning "purity" and referring to a total "erasure" of the sin.
The concept of atonement is therefore simply a short-term cover-up of a sin, not its total erasure. It stems from G-d's compassion: He temporarily overlooks our sins, giving us a short reprieve so that we might repent. Only then, if and when we do long-term teshuvah, will our misdeeds be totally erased. The atonement we seek to achieve via our Holy Temple sacrifices is merely a "cover-up" of our sins and protection from punishment – up until we feel true regret, guaranteeing that we do not repeat them.
Having understood this introduction, let us now turn to the Torah portion of Shmini.
The Cohanim (priests) in Israel have several functions. They are best-known for serving in the Holy Temple, preparing and bringing the people's sacrifices. Much less well-known, but of paramount importance, is the task of teaching Torah to Israel. The Prophet Ezekiel emphasizes:
וְאֶת עַמִּי יוֹרוּ בֵּין קדֶשׁ לְחֹל וּבֵין טָמֵא לְטָהוֹר יוֹדִעֻם
And they will teach My nation to differentiate between sacred and profane,
and will inform them of the difference between impure and pure. (Yechezkel 44,23)
As their teachers, the Cohanim carry a great responsibility, even if indirectly, for the people's actions. If the people sin, the Cohanim must share in the blame. This is why the priests must partake of the sin-offerings that the people bring – but with significant restrictions: They must eat the sin-offering meat only in "sanctity and purity," and only in the holy sanctuary in the Beit HaMikdash.
The fascinating conclusion is this: It is not enough for the sinner to bring a "ransom" to atone or cover up for his sin; someone must also take responsibility for the sin. Via the encounter with the priest who eats of the sacrifice in purity, some of the responsibility is transferred to him, completing the atonement "cover-up." The sinner must then repent and do full Teshuvah, and only then will the sin be totally erased.
We read in Parashat Shmini that Moshe rebukes Aharon and his sons:
מַדּוּעַ לא אֲכַלְתֶּם אֶת הַחַטָּאת בִּמְקוֹם הַקּדֶשׁ?
כִּי קדֶשׁ קָדָשִׁים הִיא וְאתָהּ נָתַן לָכֶם לָשֵׂאת אֶת עֲוֹן הָעֵדָה לְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיהֶם לִפְנֵי י-הוה.
Why did you not eat the sin-offering in a holy area?
It is holy of holies, and has been given to you to bear the community's sin
and atone for them before G-d. (Vayikra 10,17)
What exactly is Moshe upset about? Based on the above, he is reminding Aharon's sons, the Cohanim, that they are those who are indirectly responsible for the people's sins, and that they must therefore eat the sacrifice. If they do not do so, there will be no atonement for the owner.
What about those sins for which the Cohanim cannot share in their responsibility? Who will eat of them, and who is responsible? Consider these two examples:
- A High Priest who sinned on his own
- The High Court that erred in a ruling, leading the nation to sin inadvertently.
In such cases, no part of the sin-offerings is eaten; instead, their blood is sprinkled towards the inner sanctuary, onto the parochet, the curtain separating the "Holy" area from the "Holy of Holies." In some cases, the blood is even sprinkled into the Holy of Holies itself, opposite the Ark.
In these cases, no one eats of the meat of these sacrifices, even though they are sin-offerings; they are totally burnt upon the altar as "wholly-consumed bulls and goats." This signifies that Hashem Himself, as we saw above, is sharing in the responsibility for Israel's sins, for having created the motivation to sin. No mortal need eat from it – because Hashem's fire consumes it!
Moshe emphasizes this as he continues his reproach to Aharon and his sons:
הֵן לא הוּבָא אֶת דָּמָהּ אֶל הַקּדֶשׁ פְּנִימָה, אָכוֹל תּאכְלוּ אֹתָהּ בַּקֹּדֶשׁ
For its blood was not brought into the holy sanctuary;
you shall eat it in the Holy area. (verse 18)
Moshe asks: "Why did you not eat of the sin-offering, to help atone for the Children of Israel? After all, it is not of the type whose blood is sprinkled inwards, of which you do not eat because G-d Himself takes partial responsibility for having created man with an evil inclination! It is rather of the regular type, and therefore you must eat it in the holy area and thus atone for Israel."
This helps us understand yet another puzzling Torah concept: The commandment to send one of two goats to its death in Azazel on Yom Kippur.
וְנָשָׂא הַשָּׂעִיר עָלָיו אֶת כָּל עֲוֹנֹתָם אֶל אֶרֶץ גְּזֵרָה...
The goat shall carry upon it all their sins to a barren land. (Vayikra 16,22)
How can one little goat can bear on its back all the sins of the Nation of Israel – especially since we now know that we do not mean "carrying sins," but rather bearing the responsibility for them. How can a mindless goat be responsible for our misdeeds?
The answer is as follows: This act symbolizes that the animalistic force of evil in the world, that which gives man the urge and push to sin, is actually the indirectly responsible element for man's sins. It is the mesit u'mediach, the inciter and instigator. And though it was G-d Himself Who created and activated this animalistic force, He did so in order to enable true Free Will, as is described in the dialogue between G-d and the Satan in the beginning of the Book of Job.
This is precisely the reason that we sacrifice two goats on Yom Kippur: one for G-d, and one for Azazel. The latter symbolizes that our animalistic desires share responsibility for our sins. These sins are then "covered up" – G-d overlooks them – because the Evil Inclination shares in the blame. And this is also why on Yom Kippur, we fast and keep away from all our physical lusts that bring us to sin – telling us that without these lusts, we would not sin.
But above this, there is a second aspect to the Evil Inclination: Hashem Himself shares in the responsibility for having created this force. This is symbolized by the second goat – the one that is sacrificed to G-d not by being driven off a cliff, but inside the Beit HaMikdash. This sacrifice is not eaten at all; no human being shares in the responsibility for these sins. The blood of this second goat is sprinkled towards the parochet and the holy area, and also inside the Holy of Holies itself, before the Holy Ark. As we have seen, this indicates that Hashem is taking partial responsibility for the sin. As the Torah tells us regarding this sacrifice:
וְכִפֶּר עַל הַקֹּדֶשׁ מִטֻּמְאֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וּמִפִּשְׁעֵיהֶם לְכָל חַטֹּאתָם...
It will atone at the holy area for the impurities of Israel and all their sins. (Vayikra 16,16)
"Atonement at the holy area" means that Hashem is requesting that Israel should "atone" for Him, as it were, simply for having created evil in the world. He had a good reason for creating evil – namely, His desire to run the world with Free Choice for mortals, which inevitably means that there must be sin in the world. All sin, then, can be traced back to G-d's will for us to have Free Choice.
This approach stems from G-d's compassion for His nation of Israel, as we repeat many times in our prayers and especially on Yom Kippur:
י-הוה י-הוה, אֵ-ל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן, אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם ...נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן... וְנַקֵּה לֹא יְנַקֶּה
G-d, G-d, merciful and compassionate L-rd, long-suffering and of great kindness … Who bears sin… yet does not completely cleanse [sinners of their guilt]… (Shmot 34,6-7)
Note the conclusion of this list of the 13 Divine Attributes of Mercy: He will not cleanse. It means that G'ds attribute of compassion is that He does not erase or cleanse the sin right away, but rather waits patiently for the sinner to truly regret his actions and resolve not to do them again. Only then will G-d wipe them off the slate.
This explains why, when we recite the list of Divine Attributes in our prayers, we end in the middle of a phrase. We say ונקה, He will cleanse, and leave out the words ולא ינקה, He will not cleanse. This implies our confidence that we will be cleansed of our sins, because we take upon ourselves to repent and do complete Teshuvah, truly wiping our slate clean of sin. As the Sages teach: "Hashem cleanses those who repent, and not those who do not repent." (Tr. Shavuot, p. 39a)