This week’s parashah concludes with a description of the days of miluim, initiation, the days that focus on the dedication of the sanctuary, and which mark the official inauguration of Aharon and his sons as the priests who will serve in it. The verses also indicate that these days are charged with atonement.
As a result, these days of miluim – or at least some of the details associated with them – become a model for what other moments and rituals of atonement might look like, including the rituals associated with Yom Kippur and the purification from death effected through the ashes of the red heifer.
What is the place of atonement in an event that marks a new beginning? What is the effect of associating ritualized, routine atonement (such as that which we do each year on Yom Kippur) with the atonement of a one-time occurrence (such as that of the miluim)?
As we noted, the second half of our parashah describes a public ceremony that marks the dedication of the sanctuary:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Take Aaron along with his sons, and the vestments, the anointing oil, the bull of sin offering, the two rams, and the basket of unleavened bread; and assemble the whole community at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Vayikra 8:1-3
This ceremony has several dimensions of meaning. First, it is a consecration not only of the vessels used for service in the sanctuary, but also of Aharon and his sons:
Moses took the anointing oil and anointed the Tabernacle and all that was in it, thus consecrating them. He sprinkled some of it on the altar seven times, anointing the altar, all its utensils, and the laver with its stand, to consecrate them. He poured some of the anointing oil upon Aaron’s head and anointed him, to consecrate him. Vayikra 8:10-12
Second, it has a dimension of atonement:
He led forward the bull of sin offering. Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the head of the bull of sin offering, and it was slaughtered. Moses took the blood and with his finger put some on each of the horns of the altar, cleansing the altar; then he poured out the blood at the base of the altar. Thus he consecrated it in order to atone for it. Vayikra 8:14-15
The presence of atonement at this moment of dedication is quite surprising. Aren’t we marking the beginning of something? What possible need for atonement could there be at a moment like this? For what would we need to atone when we are just starting out? Atonement is not the only surprising feature of the verses describing the sanctuary’s dedication.
A second surprise is the instruction to use this ritual as a model for future ceremonies as well. One would have thought that the moment of dedicating the sanctuary and inaugurating the priests is sui generis, perhaps only to be repeated with the eventual building of the Temple. But the Torah tells us otherwise: “Just as was done today, so God has instructed you to act to atone for yourselves [in the future, on other occasions]” (Vayikra 8:34). This seemingly unique occurrence is in fact the template for future atonement ceremonies. How are we to understand this unexpected conclusion to the Torah’s description of the days of miluim?
Various rabbinic texts understood this instruction to use the miluimas a paradigm for atonement, as directed toward the future. As a result, a number of critical details of two central Jewish atonement rites – those performed on Yom Kippur and those surrounding the red heifer – are derived from the verses describing the miluim. For instance, this connection is made at the very beginning of BT Tractate Yoma, which is devoted to describing the High Priest’s service on Yom Kippur:
Rav Minyomi bar Hilkiya said that Rabbi Mahseya bar Idi said that Rabbi Yohanan said: the verse states: “As has been done this day, so the Lord has commanded to do, to make atonement for you” (Vayikra 8:34), “To do”; this [points to] the actions performed in the burning of the red heifer; “to make atonement”; this [points to] the actions performed on Yom Kippur.” BT, Masekhet Yoma 2a
R. Yohanan teaches us that Vayikra 8:34 hints at the red heifer, the ashes of which are used to atone for corpse impurity, and also at Yom Kippur, the central day of Jewish atonement. This connection between the act of atonement and the ritual dedication of the sanctuary teaches us that atonement is in essence an act of beginning.
A person who has been atoned for is entirely new, just like a new, unused sanctuary, just like priests that have just now been inaugurated into their first act of service. A person who has experienced atonement stands at the starting line, in front of a newly opened door. Atonement simulates the erasure of his past; her sin has melted away as if it never existed.
But other rabbinic texts reject this approach and ask the question we began with: Why would something new require atonement?
Rashi asks this very question and suggests that the miluim process anticipates the sanctuary’s and the altar’s future roles in atonement: “‘Moshe sanctified the altar’-With this action; ‘To atone for it’-Now, for all of its future atonements.” The sanctuary’s future power to atone is bestowed upon it at this foundational moment.
However, in the Sifra, the exegetical midrash on Vayikra, we find a different approach. According to the Sifra, the altar in fact required atonement at this inaugural moment, because this is fact not an inaugural moment at all:
“Moshe sanctified the altar to atone for it”- I do not know what this atonement is. How do you know that this atonement that Moshe speaks of was not only for the following? Sifra, The Section of Miluim 15 (manuscript Vatican 66)
The question posed in the Sifra is about the nature of this atonement spoken about in the verses. Perhaps they are only referring to the future atonement granted through the altar and the temple? This suggestion is rejected:
When the announcement came out to volunteer items for [the construction of] the sanctuary, the Israelites put pressure on one another and contributed not willingly. This then is to serve as atonement so there not be anything stolen in the sanctuary. As it says: “For I the Lord love justice and hate theft in sacrifice.” (Isaiah 61:8)
The claim in the Sifra is that the need for atonement stemmed from what took place during the building of the mishkan. The Israelites pressured one another such that they contributed to it unwillingly, in a manner that bordered on theft. This reality is what brought the need for atonement. In other words: The history of the mishkan required atonement, even at its seemingly opening moment, as the inauguration was not in fact the starting point but rather a moment on a continuum, responding to an event in its past and the fear that the donations might have the nature of stolen property.
More broadly, we should see the Sifra as asserting that the need for atonement stems from consciousness of the fact that every beginning has a context, a context with a past and a history. That past might include mistakes, and thus also beginnings are in need of atonement. This is a highly complex claim about atonement and, in turn, about beginnings.
If we want to start clean, without sin, then even moments that seem to be brand-new beginnings require atonement. We must always look to the context from which and within which such beginnings are created and pay attention to the elements of this new beginning that are themselves in need of fixing.
If so, R. Yohanan’s position in Tractate Yoma and the midrash in the Sifra are in clear opposition. According to R. Yohanan, atonement creates a new person, turning him into a tabula rasa with no past at all, standing at the inception of a new journey. For the Sifra, however, every moment, every beginning, is rooted in the context that created it. Atonement is thus straightening that which was crooked and is a process of renewal, but there is no such thing as new beginning without a past.