Friday, April 05, 2013

Thoughts on Ramban, Aharon, The Golden Calf, Azazel and Rambam.


As one learns Ramban on Chumash it becomes clear that as he declared in his introduction, he is having a dialogue with his predecessors. He discloses in that introduction the names of two of them: Rashi and Ibn Ezra. But a person familiar with Rambam’s thought will detect a constant underlying dialogue with Rambam especially when the subject deals with theological matters even when he does not explicitly tell us so. An example of such a subtle dialogue can be detected in this week’s Parsha (Shemini) Vaykra 9:7-8.

ז  וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-אַהֲרֹן, קְרַב אֶל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וַעֲשֵׂה אֶת-חַטָּאתְךָ וְאֶת-עֹלָתֶךָ, וְכַפֵּר בַּעַדְךָ, וּבְעַד הָעָם; וַעֲשֵׂה אֶת-קָרְבַּן הָעָם, וְכַפֵּר בַּעֲדָם, כַּאֲשֶׁר, צִוָּה יְהוָה.    
And Moses said unto Aaron: 'Draw near unto the altar, and offer thy sin-offering, and thy burnt-offering, and make atonement for thyself, and for the people; and present the offering of the people, and make atonement for them; as the LORD commanded.'
ח  וַיִּקְרַב אַהֲרֹן, אֶל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ; וַיִּשְׁחַט אֶת-עֵגֶל הַחַטָּאת, אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ.           
 So Aaron drew near unto the altar, and slew the calf of the sin-offering, which was for himself.

The obvious question that comes to mind is what was the purpose of this dialogue? Didn’t Aharon know that it was his job as Cohen to go up to the altar to do the Avodah? Chazal detect reluctance on his part and comment on it. Rashi abbreviates their comment and just points out that Aharon was shy and reluctant. One gets the impression that it was possibly a lack of self-confidence or humility, Aharon feeling that he was not worthy.  Ramban is not content with leaving that impression. After offering a somewhat strained Peshuto Shel Mikra explanation he quotes the Midrash (Mechilta DeMiluim 7, Sifra ad locum) verbatim.

 “But in Torat Kohanim [our Rabbis] commented on this matter by offering a parable. This is comparable to a king who married a woman who was ashamed [to be intimate] with him. She came to her sister who told her – isn’t it for this purpose that you married him? Be bold and come serve the king. So too Moshe told Aharon, brother weren’t you chosen to be Cohen Gadol to serve God? Be bold and do your work. Some say, that to Aharon the altar took the shape of an ox (Ketavnit Shor) and Aharon feared him, Moshe came to him and told him not to let his fears take over, be bold and go closer. That is why it says קְרַב אֶל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ and  וַיִּקְרַב אַהֲרֹן, אֶל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ;”

When one reads that Midrash second explanation one can interpret it that Aharon was feeling guilty about having been instrumental in the Egel episode. A more sophisticated read, and probably that is how Rambam would read it, is that he was trying to understand how is the concept of bringing offerings to an idol different than burnt offerings on the altar in the Mishkan. Why when he created the Egel which was ultimately directed to God, he was so harshly censured, isn’t this similar?  Isn’t the idea of bringing an offering a sort of bribe exchanging it for goodwill? Aren’t we attempting to bribe God here too? Moshe’s response was that despite the questions he must do as ordered because it is God’s wish to allow the people to indulge a little in their superstitious illusion and thereby slowly lead them to a more advanced understanding of worship. This is a very directed and regulated worship while the Egel was an unregulated spontaneous outburst of superstition and even worse, to an intermediary, a representation of God.

Ramban however, at the beginning of Vaykra (1:9) has already voiced his vehement disagreement with Rambam’s understanding that Korbanot are a concession to human frailty. He does believe that offerings impact God if brought with the proper intention. The Egel was to an intermediary which is prohibited while Korbanot are directed to the Hallowed Name of Hashem. He now worries that this Midrash will be interpreted support Rambam’s position.

“The meaning of this Midrash is because Aharon who was a holy person and only had sinned once at the Egel, that sin stood out in his mind, … and he saw the form of the calf, namely that it was preventing him from successfully getting forgiveness.  Moshe tells him not worry as he is already forgiven for that misstep. Others say that the Satan was showing him the calf, as the Rabbis say there, Aharon my brother, even though God forgave you, you still have to offer something to the Satan to stop him from interfering when you come into the Holy places…”

Ramban interprets the Midrash as saying that Aharon was worried about his having sinned and that will stand in the way of his worship. He makes that point lest we interpret that the Korbanot themselves were problematic. Ramban does not see a problem with offerings as long as they are directed to God. The second explanation offered by the Rabbis he interprets as the Satan appearing to Aharon demanding a bribe for himself.  There are circumstances where even the Torah sanctions bringing offerings other than to God. Satan at times may have to be placated just like the Azazel offering on Yom Kippur see Ramban and Ibn Ezra on Vayikra 16:8.

Rambam in MN 3:46 explains that the Azazel offering does not imply that one can transfer one’s sins onto another entity (reminds us of Kaparot and I would not be surprised that was in his mind as the custom goes back to Geonim) but rather to symbolically awaken in us the thought that we have left our past behind and we are starting afresh with the undertaking of not repeating past mistakes. This offering represents the most abhorrent sins of the whole people which are so bad that they cannot be bought into the sanctuary in front of God. I also believe that at the end of the whole charged Avodah of the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, the last offering does not come onto the altar as a symbol that the burning is not what a Korban is. God does not need it and to Him it is all the same whether offered to him as a burnt offering or whether it is gratuitously destroyed. It is all to get us thinking about our actions and improving them. We have here a classic redirection of a habit that cannot be stopped.


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