For on this Day Hashem will Appear Before You
1. The Egel and the Mishkan
After the seven days of the Mishkan’s inauguration, the eighth day has finally arrived, and with it the promise of divine revelation.
In order to appreciate the significance of this event, it must be viewed from a broader historical perspective. At Sinai, Yisrael experienced divine revelation in a very direct way (Devarim 5:4). According to the Ramban, the open revelation of Sinai was meant to continue through the Mishkan in a less obvious way, and Moshe was therefore commanded to build the Mishkan at the beginning of his forty days on Har Sinai. However, the cheit ha-egel changed everything. It was not until Yom Kippur, when Moshe descended from Har Sinai with the second luchot, that Bnei Yisrael achieved atonement for the cheit ha-egel, but this was not the end of the process of atonement. Immediately after Yom Kippur, Bnei Yisrael were commanded to construct the Mishkan. The Torah (Shemot 35:20-29) describes the excitement that greeted the campaign for donations towards the building project – to the extent that they brought even more materials than were needed (ibid. 36:5-7). Apparently, this excitement arose not only from the thirst for the Divine Presence, but also from feelings of guilt for having fashioned the Egel. Bnei Yisrael had previously removed their gold earrings in order to design the egel; in contributing towards the Mishkan they were given an opportunity to offer their jewelry for the sake of the Mishkan and its vessels. Therefore, the very engagement in the Mishkan was part of the process of national teshuva for cheit ha-egel. As Chazal explain:
When they made the Egel, God told Moshe: “Now leave Me alone … and I will destroy them.” He [Moshe] said to Him [Hashem]: “Test them [to see] whether they will make the Mishkan.” What is written with regard to that failure? “Remove the gold rings.” And what did they bring? Rings. And when they made the Mishkan, they made the same contribution. And that is what is written, “All who were generous of spirit brought nose-rings and earrings, rings and bracelets” – they sinned by means of earrings, and by earrings He was appeased. The Divine spirit moved Hoshea to declare, “Instead of them being told, 'You are not My nation,' they will be told, 'You are the children of the living God.'” Moshe said to God, “You wrote: 'If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and he slaughters it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for that ox.' Behold, they have brought to God nose-rings and earrings, rings, and bracelets." (Midrash Rabba, Shemot 48:5)
The eighth day of the Mishkan's inauguration – the conclusion of the consecration process – was therefore also a day of atonement for the sin of the Egel. Am Yisrael had toiled for months to build the Mishkan, with the aim of once again meriting Divine revelation reminiscent of that at Sinai. And indeed, following seven days of inauguration, God promised, "On this day God will appear to you" (Vayikra 9:4). With great anticipation, Bnei Yisrael approached and stood around the Mishkan, awaiting word of their expiation. The tension mounted, until the fire emerged from before God: "And God's glory appeared to all the nation and a fire emerged from before God and consumed [that which was] upon the altar" (Vayikra 9:23-24).
The eighth day therefore marks the end of a lengthy process that began with Moshe's bringing the second luchot and concludes with the Shekhina's descent onto the Mishkan, as it were – a process reflecting a profound religious drama within the collective spirit of Bnei Yisrael.
2. Aharon’s Sacrifice
Alongside the national drama, there is a personal drama that plays itself out with special intensity within the recesses of one individual's soul – that of Aharon. Aharon played a central role in the egel episode, and there can be no doubt that a powerful sense of guilt lurked within him. Nevertheless, Aharon is called upon to sanctify himself and serve during the days of inauguration to atone for the sin of the egel. Aharon, who took part in the transgression, who "exposed them, so that they were an object of derision to those who oppose them" (Shemot 32:25), is the one chosen to serve as Kohen Gadol so that God's glory can once again appear before Am Yisrael.
It is no accident that Aharon is commanded to sacrifice an egel as a personal sin offering on the eighth day, even though the standard sin offering for a Kohen Gadol is an ox. Rashi notes that this comes to attain atonement for his role in the cheit ha-egel.
Chazal were sensitive to Aharon's inner tension, and explain the verse, "Moshe said to Aharon: Approach the altar, and offer your sin offering and your burnt offering" (Vayikra 9:7) accordingly; Aharon lacked religious self-confidence as a result of his part in designing the golden calf:
Some say that Aharon perceived the altar as having the form of an ox, and he was afraid of it. Moshe said to him, “My brother: that of which you are fearful – be confident and approach it!” For this reason it is written, “Approach the altar."
The Ramban offers a psychological insight into this Midrash:
The reason for this is that because Aharon was sanctified to God, and his soul held no sin except for the matter of the egel, that sin was fixed in his mind, in the manner of that which is written, “and my sin is before me always.” It seemed to him that the form of the golden calf was there, obstructing his atonement. Therefore, Moshe told him, “Be confident” – do not be of such lowly spirit, for God is already favorably disposed towards your actions. (Ramban, Vayikra 9:7)
However, we find that even after Aharon finishes offering all the sacrifices and blesses the nation, the Shekhina does not immediately descend to the nation. The Shekhina appears only when Moshe joins Aharon:
Aharon lifted his hands to the nation and blessed them. And he descended from offering the sin offering and the burnt offering and the peace offerings, and Moshe and Aharon came to the Ohel Mo'ed, and they came out and blessed the nation, and God's glory appeared to all the nation. (Vayikra 9:22-23)
Chazal explain that Aharon felt that the Shekhina was not appearing because of his role in the sin of the egel:
"And Moshe and Aharon came to the Ohel Mo'ed” – when Aharon saw that all the sacrifices had already been offered and all the actions had already been performed, but the Shekhina was not descending to Israel, Aharon stood and was troubled. He said, “I know that God is angry with me; it is because of me that the Shekhina has not come down to Israel. This is what my brother Moshe did to me – I went forth and I was embarrassed, for the Shekhina did not descend to Yisrael!” Moshe immediately entered with him, and they asked for Divine mercy, and the Shekhina descended to Yisrael. Therefore, it is written, “Moshe and Aharon came to the Ohel Mo'ed." (Sifra, Parashat Shemini, Mekhilta De-Milu'im)
Ultimately, after Moshe joined Aharon, the Shekhina descended upon Israel. But immediately thereafter, Nadav and Avihu were consumed by fire. According to one view in the Midrash, Aharon's sons died as punishment for their father's role in the debacle of the egel:
At first, a decree was pronounced against him, as it is written, '”And God was exceedingly angry at Aharon, [and decided] to destroy him.” R. Yehoshua of Sakhnin said in the name of R. Levi: The term “destruction” (hashmada) is never used except to mean the annihilation of one's children, as it is written, “I shall destroy his fruit above and his roots below.” Because Moshe prayed for him, he was spared from half the decree: two died and two remained. This is as it is written, “Take Aharon and his sons with him…" (Vayikra Rabba 10:5)
Even if we do not adopt the perspective of this midrash, we cannot ignore the possibility that Aharon blamed himself for the death of his sons. Indeed, the phrase, "Aharon was silent" (10:3), describing Aharon’s reaction to their deaths, is interpreted not only as an expression of mourning, but also as a justification and acceptance of God's judgment and punishment as part of Aharon's teshuva for the sin of the egel. Admittedly, the Torah does not elaborate at any length on Aharon's teshuva, nor how he overcame his part in the egel, in order to be worthy once again of serving God as the Kohen Gadol. But in these two words – "va-yidom Aharon" – the Torah offers us a glimpse into the drama that was playing out in the recesses of his soul. Thus, on the eighth day, Aharon's struggle with his sin reached new and more profound level.
3. After the Death of Aharon’s Children
The Torah introduces the laws of the Yom Kippur service with the words: “After the death of Aharon’s two sons” (16:1). It is only at this point, following the eighth day of inauguration that Aharon was permitted to enter the Kodesh Ha-Kodashim. The sacrifices of the eighth day, despite their similarity to the sacrifices of Yom Kippur, were offered outside, in the Mishkan's courtyard. Only after the death of his two sons is Aharon told, "With this shall Aharon enter the Kodesh …." (16:3). It is only after "va-yidom Aharon" that the atonement for the sin of the egel is complete.
There is an interesting discussion in Massekhet Rosh Hashana that connects the Kohen Gadol's entry into the Kodesh Ha-Kodashim on Yom Kippur with the sin of the egel:
For what reason does the Kohen Gadol not enter the Kodesh Ha-Kodashim in his golden garments to perform the service? Because a prosecutor [a reference to gold, reminiscent of the egel] cannot become an advocate. (Rosh Hashana 26a).
This gemara teaches that Aharon's role in the sin of the egel forms the background to the Kohen Gadol's entry into the Kodesh Ha-Kodashim. The Kohen Gadol enters the holiest place wearing only the simple priestly garments made of linen, showing that he is completely clean of this sin.
In light of the above, Yom Kippur is found at both ends of the process of atonement for the sin of the golden calf, with the eighth day of the inauguration placed in between. First, Yom Kippur is the day that the second luchot were given to Yisrael. On this day, in the first year following the Exodus from Egypt, Yisrael were granted the opportunity to atone for the egel by means of building the Mishkan. On the eighth day, at the conclusion of this process of construction and preparation, the Shekhina once again descended to the nation. But from Aharon's point of view, the eighth day was a day for grappling with his part in the sin, reaching its climax with the death of his two sons, and his reaction of silent submission. This reaction – an expression of the depth of his teshuva and his acceptance of Divine justice – led to his ability to atone for the sin of the egel, for himself, for his household and for the entire congregation of Yisrael. It also led to the license to enter the Kodesh Ha-Kodashim, entry that takes place every year on Yom Kippur, when Bnei Yisrael seek atonement for all their sins before God.
4. The Place where Penitents Stand the Completely Righteous Cannot Stand
Nadav and Avihu, who were not participants in the sin of the egel, died when they tried to approach God. Aharon's sons believed that they deserved to behold Hashem; in their arrogance, they entered the Kodesh without consulting with their teacher. They failed to understand that a mortal man – even the most righteous and the most holy – does not have the right to demand to behold God. The license to enter the holiest of places is awarded specifically to Aharon, who did play a role in the sin of the egel and who lived with a sense of failure and missed opportunity. His sin gave him no rest, and he profoundly felt that he had no right to behold God's countenance. He knew that his invitation to enter the holiest place, the most intimate meeting with God, was granted not by right, but rather by God's mercy and compassion, after he himself had sinned and then performed teshuva.
Chazal teach, "The place where penitents stand – even the completely righteous cannot stand" (Berakhot 34b). The completely righteous, who have never tasted sin, do not recognize the weaknesses and limitations of human reality; therefore, they cannot occupy that special place before God that is reserved for the penitent. The latter has experienced firsthand the impurity that surrounds human reality; he knows that his calling to stand before God comes only as a result of Divine mercy and compassion.
The Kodesh Ha-Kodashim is not open to Nadav and Avihu, but rather to Aharon (or the Kohen Gadol who will succeed him), dressed only in the simple, linen priestly garments so as not to recall the egel. Even today, in the absence of our Temple, we do not come before God by virtue of our righteousness, but rather by virtue of His immense compassion. Every year on Yom Kippur we declare, "Like the destitute and downtrodden, we knock on Your door,” with a profound sense of regret." We give stark expression to the limitations of human existence:
After all, the valiant ones are all like nothing before You, and people of fame as though they had never existed, and the wise as though they knew nothing, and those that understand as though they had no discernment. For most of their actions are worthless, and the days of their lives are vanity before You; and man has no advantage over the animals, for all is vanity.
In complete submission we pray and entreat the Holy One Himself, as it were, to cleanse us as the mikva purifies the impure, and to fulfill the promise: "For on that day He shall give you atonement, to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be purified BEFORE GOD" (Vayikra 16:30).