Parashat Shemini

Overcoming And Learning From Our Mistakes

Recognizing our fallibility can lead us to compassion and empathy for our fellow humans, and bring us closer to God and others.

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Furthermore, Moses was right there to supervise. So it still begs the question: why does Rashi think that Aaron might have hesitated at that moment, the moment of the inauguration of the Mishkan ceremonies?

A later commentator offers a psychological explanation of Aaron's moment of holding back:

The Midrash says that the altar looked to him like a calf [i.e, that image filled Aaron's mind], and that was why he hesitated. As is known, a person's imagination is a product of those matters which are on his mind, and that's what he dwells on. Aaron could not forget what happened with the Golden Calf--he always remembered this sin! This is like what is written: "My transgression is always before me." (Psalm 51:5)

Thus, he saw the altar as a calf [again, that image was predominant]. Thus, when Moses said: "for this you were chosen," he meant: "because of this, because you always remember your transgression and are humbled from it, you were chosen to serve as the High Priest." (from Mincha Belulah, a 16th century Torah commentary by the Italian rabbi Avraham Rapa, quoted in Itturei Torah. Translation mine.)

OK, now we're getting somewhere. Rashi tells us that Aaron's sin-offering was, in fact, a young cow; the Mincha Belulah postulates that the image of the cow made Aaron feel ashamed and unworthy, because he remembered his role in crafting the Golden Calf that Israel made while Moses was up on the mountain receiving the Torah. (See Exodus 32.)

The Mincha Belulah goes on to make a midrash (commentary) that it was precisely because of Aaron's humility that God chose him to serve as the priest who atoned for the people.

To me, the Mincha Belulah's midrash contains a twofold lesson. First, even Aaron, the High Priest, "misses the mark" sometimes; even Aaron has to bring the chatat offering for inadvertent transgressions. Yet even a lapse of good judgment as problematic as making the Golden Calf doesn't mean one is banished from God's Presence or disqualified from Divine service! The rest of us rarely craft idols which earn God's fiery wrath (again, see Exodus 32-33), but we all make mistakes and "blow it" sometimes, and if Aaron can still approach God, then by all means, so can the rest of us.

The second teaching of our midrash concerns the importance of acknowledging our imperfections. Yes, we all make mistakes, and no, they don't disqualify us from serving God, but recognizing our own fallibility its own form of spiritual growth. Aaron could be the one to bring the people close to God because had no illusions of being God himself--he knew (according to this reading) that he was just a mortal, imperfect person like anybody else, capable of mistakes, and just as capable of fixing them.

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Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger

Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger is currently the rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Poughkeepsie, NY. A former student at Kolel, he served as Kolel's Director of Outreach from late 1999-2001. He was ordained in the first graduating class of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism, and holds a Master's of Environmental Studies from York University in Toronto.