Posted on March 25, 2022 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck
There is a tense moment at the opening of this week’s Torah portion, Shemini. It has been only a year since the liberation of Israel from Egypt and nine months since our people arrived at Mount Sinai. Led by Moses and Aaron, the Israelites have received the Torah and labored to build the Tabernacle that will accompany them on their journey to the Promised Land.
The Tabernacle is now complete, the Priests have been ordained and are about to perform the inaugural service in the new sanctuary, when something happens that catches the attention of Torah commentators: “Then Moses said to Aaron: ‘Come near to the altar and offer your sin offering, making expiation for yourself and for the people…’” (Leviticus 9:7)
Why does Moses bid Aaron to draw near? Does it mean that Aaron has until now kept his distance from the altar? The midrash explains: “Aaron was ashamed and fearful of approaching the altar.” (cf. Sifra, Shemini, Mechilta d’Miluim 2 8).
Aaron was reticent, suggests the midrash, because of his role in the sin of the golden calf. He was the one left in charge when Moses first ascended Mount Sinai. It was Aaron who told the people to bring the gold that he subsequently fashioned into a golden calf, and he who built an altar before it. When he saw the altar of the Tabernacle, painful memories of those events came flooding back and he was overcome with guilt and shame.
God had forgiven Aaron and reconciled with the people, but Aaron’s confidence had not been restored. Still traumatized, he was unable to step up to fulfill his role as High Priest. At that moment, Moses came to his rescue, offering the following words of reassurance and brotherly love.
As one midrash describes it, “Moses said to him: ‘Why are you ashamed? It was for this that you were chosen.’” (ibid) Another midrash imagines that Moses said to Aaron: “My brother, why were you chosen as high priest? Is it not for the sake of ministering before the Holy One? Embolden yourself and perform your service!” (ibid)
For us, our moment to draw near has come. But it is not so simple. For some, the physical risk is still too great. For others, the emotional impact of the traumas of these past two years is still palpable. This is a moment that calls for the wisdom of Moses. His example teaches us to see and hear one another with sibling-like love and compassion, to make every attempt to understand each other’s feelings and needs, and to offer words that heal.
Like Moses, we can address one another with gentle words of encouragement that are appropriate to the uniqueness of each person we may encounter. The power of a kind word to liberate the soul cannot be overestimated.
Like Moses and Aaron, each of us has individual needs that arise from our unique personalities and life experience. Yet, there is also something universal in Moses’ words that I wish to express to all of you at this moment.
We were meant to be together. The time may not be right for all of us to return to the temple, but, ultimately, return we must, as it was for fellowship, community, connection, and loving embrace that we were made. We need each other. We need to see each other in our fullness, not just in a box on a screen (as helpful as that has been). We need to feel each other’s touch and warm embrace.
For those who are ready to return, I look forward to our reunion. For those who are unable to join us in-person, know that my heart and the hearts of your entire temple family are extended to you, with longing to be together again soon. Let us draw near in every way we can.
This evening at 7:00, in the sanctuary and on Zoom, we will celebrate Shabbat and the Confirmation of our 12th graders. These amazing young people have waited two long years for this. We are thrilled to celebrate with them and their families and hope you will join us for this uplifting moment in the life of our temple family and our people.
Rabbi Arnie Gluck