In the opening verses of Parashat Shemini, we read of the sacrifices brought by Aharon and by the rest of Benei Yisrael on the day when Aharon and his sons began serving as kohanim for the first time. Chazal, in Torat Kohanim (to 9:3), take note of the fact that the sacrifice which God commanded the nation to offer was considerably larger than the sacrifice that Aharon was required to bring on this day. They comment that God told Benei Yisrael to offer a more elaborate sacrifice because “you have in your hands [guilt] in the beginning and the end” – meaning, as Torat Kohanim proceeds to explain, the people needed to atone for two grave transgressions: the earlier sin of mekhirat Yosef (Yosef’s sale as a slave by his brothers), and cheit ha-eigel (the sin of the golden calf). Their sacrifice consisted of a goat to atone for the sale of Yosef, when Yosef’s brothers slaughtered a goat to make it appear as though Yosef was attacked by a beast, as well as a calf, to atone for the worship of the golden calf. Aharon was guilty only of participating in the sin of the golden calf, but did not require atonement for the sin of the sale of Yosef, and thus his sacrifice was smaller (and did not include a goat).
Torat Kohanim’s comments give rise to several questions. While we understand the need for Benei Yisrael to atone for the recent sin of the golden calf, which they had worshipped less than a year earlier, before they could be worthy of having the Divine Presence reside among them in the Mishkan, why would they need to atone for mekhirat Yosef specifically now? Moreover, why do Chazal refer to these two sins with the terms “beginning” and “end,” implying that these two unfortunate incidents somehow form the bookends of some kind of integrated process? Finally, if Benei Yisrael collectively required atonement for the sin of mekhirat Yosef, why was this not also demanded of Aharon, a descendant of Levi, who is named as one of the two primary culprits of the sale of Yosef (Midrash Tanchuma, Vayechi 9; Rashi, Bereishit 49:5)?
Keli Yakar suggests explaining Torat Kohanim’s comment by offering an intriguing and novel approach to the background of cheit ha-eigel. He speculates that the golden calf, like the sale of Yosef, was precipitated by envy and competition. Just as Yosef’s brothers envied his special stature and thus decided to eliminate him, similarly, some members of Benei Yisrael sought to replace Moshe as the nation’s leader, and thus initiated the idea to introduce a new form of worship. Moshe’s absence, Keli Yakar explains, provided an opportunity for his opponents, who convinced the rest of the nation that Moshe had died and would never return. To win the people’s support, these opportunists proposed a new, enticing mode of worship, and they thereby attracted a large and enthusiastic following. Keli Yakar draws an interesting parallel between the golden calf worshipped at Sinai and the other instance of this kind of worship – namely, the golden calves fashioned by Yerovam, founder of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. As we read in Sefer Melakhim I (12), after Yerovam led the ten northern tribes to secede from the Israelite Kingdom during the time of King Rechavam, he established two temples with golden calves for worship at the northern and southern boundaries of his new empire. This was done to ensure that his constituents would not visit the Beit Ha-mikdash in Jerusalem to worship and offer sacrifices, which would undermine his rule. Yerovam’s lust for power, and his fear of having to share prestige with the competing kingdom, led him to a grave breach of the most elementary and foundational Jewish beliefs, and to construct sites of pagan worship. Keli Yakar proposes viewing the golden calf of Sinai in the same light, as the tragic result of political struggle. People who sought to displace Moshe seized the opportunity presented by his prolonged absence, and offered an alternative agenda that had great appeal and aroused the nation’s interest, leading them to worship a graven image.
Accordingly, Keli Yakar explains, Chazal draw a straight line from the sale of Yosef to the worship of the golden calf. In order to earn the privilege of the Shekhina’s residence in the Mishkan, the people needed to atone for the golden calf, which was rooted in the same kind of petty jealousy that produced mekhirat Yosef. This also explains why Aharon had no need to atone for the sale of Yosef, because, as Keli Yakar notes, Chazal elsewhere depict Aharon as the paragon of peace and humility, who avoided strife and set an example of harmonious cooperation between people without competition or jealousy. His character, as described by Chazal, embodied the antithesis of mekhirat Yosef, such that he had already done his share of the collective effort to cleanse the lingering stain of jealousy and competition among Benei Yisrael. Hence, although Aharon required atonement for playing a major role in the sin of the golden calf, he did not need any atonement for mekhirat Yosef, as he lived a life of peace that inspired the people and thus went a long way towards eliminating strife and contention among the Am Yisrael and correcting the ancient sin of fraternal hatred.