May the Lord Protect and Defend You

RABBI WAGENSBERG
PARSHAS SHEMINI
“May the Lord Protect and Defend You”

Our portion begins on the eighth day of inauguration for the newly built sanctuary. On that day, Aharon Hakohen offered many sacrifices and then blessed the people with Birchas Kohanim (Priestly Blessings; Parshas Shemini, 9:22, Rashi ibid, based on Toras Kohanim, 9:30; see Parshas Naso, 6:24-26).


The Toras Kohanim goes on to say that through Aharon’s Divine inspiration, he already knew about Birchas Kohanim even before Hashem instructed him to bless the people in that way. Therefore, when Aharon blessed the people with Birchas Kohanim, it was in the category of one who was not commanded to do, but did anyway.


The Dover Shalom (Rabbi Shalom Rokeach of Belz, the first Belzer Rebbe known as the Sar Shalom of Belz, 1779-1855, Ukraine), quoted in the Siddur Otzar Hatefillos (vol. 2, Birchas Kohanim Shalosh Regalim), says that this explains why the text of the bracha, which the Kohanim recite prior to blessing the people with Birchas Kohanim, is, “Asher Kidishanu Bikidushaso Shel Aharon” (Who sanctified us with the sanctity of Aharon), instead of the usual text of a bracha over a mitzva which is, “Asher Kidishanu B’mitzvosav” (Who commanded us with His commandments).


The reason why the word B’mitzvosav is deleted is because Birchas Kohanim was introduced to us by Aharon before there was a tzivui (commandment) from Hashem. Therefore, the blessing could not say “B’mitzvosav,” because at that time there was no commandment. Instead, the words “Bikidushaso Shel Aharon” was inserted because this teaches us that these blessings were presented to us by the holiness of Aharon who knew about them with his Ruach Hakodesh before they were given to us by God.


At this point, we are going to see that Birchas Kohanim was connected to the Chet Ha-eigel (Sin of the Golden Calf). To do so, we are going to see that the Mishkan and it Avoda (service) was meant as an atonement for the Jewish people for their sin with the Golden Calf.


When the Jews left Egypt, the Shechina (Divine Presence) rested upon them. However, when they sinned with the Golden Calf, the Shechina departed from them. But when the Mishkan (Sanctuary) was built, and the service began (on the eighth day of inauguration, which was on Rosh Chodesh Nissan), the Shechina returned to rest upon the Mishkan amidst the Jewish people (Rashi Parshas Shemini, 9:2, quoting Toras Kohanim, 9:3). This demonstrates to us that the Mishkan served as a kappara (atonement) for the sin of the Golden Calf.


There are many sources which support this idea that the Mishkan served as a kappara for the Eigel. For instance, the eigel (calf) which Aharon offered on the first day of service in the Mishkan was meant to atone for the Golden Calf (Rashi Parshas Shemini, 9:2, citing Tanchuma #4).


Another source is found in Parshas Pekudei (38:21) where the pasuk (verse) says, “These are the reckonings of the Sanctuary, the Sanctuary of testimony.” Rashi (ibid) cites the Tanchuma (#5) which asks, “What did the Sanctuary testify to?” The answer is that it testified to the fact that God had forgiven the Jewish people for the Sin of the Golden Calf, for after all, the Divine Presence rested amongst them once again.


Therefore, the entire Avoda of that day (the eighth day of inauguration) was intended to atone for the Chet Ha-eigel, which means that all of the tefillos (prayers) on that day and all of the berachos (blessings) on that day were also meant to atone for the Sin of the Golden Calf.


On that very day, when Aharon blessed the people with Birchas Kohanim, he conveyed to the Jews a message which was that Hashem still loves them, even after their sin with the Eigel, and that Hashem will still bless them with every fathomable blessing, even after their sin with the Eigel.


Not only did Birchas Kohanim reassure the Jewish people that Hashem still loved them, but since Birchas Kohanim was introduced on that very day, it also served as a kappara for the Sin of the Golden Calf.


As we proceed, we are going to see how Birchas Kohanim atones for the Chet Ha-eigel, but in order to do so, we are first going to explore how observing the Shalosh Regalim (Three Festivals) atones for the Golden Calf. Once we understand how the festivals atone for the Eigel, we will also realize how Birchas Kohanim atones for the Eigel. In order to embark on this journey, we are going to jump, for a moment, to the story-line where Bilaam went to curse the Jewish people.


When Bilaam went to curse the Jews, the verse says, “And Hashem opened the mouth of the she-donkey and it said to Bilaam, ‘What have I done to you that you struck me these three regalim (times),’” (Parshas Balak, 22:28). There is another word in Hebrew for “times.” That word is “pe-amim.” The word “pe-amim” is the more common word for “times.” Therefore, one could ask, “Why did the donkey use the less common word ‘regalim’ and not the more common word ‘pe-amim?’”


Rashi (ibid) cites the Tanchuma (#9) which addresses this question and says that the use of the word “regalim” teaches us that the donkey conveyed a hinted message to Bilaam, because the word “regalim” is also used to refer to the “festivals.” Therefore, the donkey’s message to Bilaam was, “Are you seeking to uproot a nation which celebrates the Three ‘Regalim’ (festivals) each year?” The donkey meant to say that Bilaam would never be able to destroy the Jews because they observe the Shalosh Regalim each and every year.


We must ponder why the donkey mentioned this specific mitzva of the regalim that the Jewish people observe more than any of the other beautiful mitzvos that the Jewish people keep? Why would the Three Festivals protect the Jews from Bilaam’s curses more than any of the other mitzvos the Jewish people kept?


The Binyan Ariel (Rabbi Shaul Lowenstam, 1717 Poland-1790 Amsterdam; Parshas Balak) addresses this question by pointing out that Bilaam had a plan as to how to make his curses effective. Bilaam intended on awakening Divine anger against the Jewish people for their old sin of the Golden Calf. Bilaam reasoned that if Hashem would be angry at the Jews on account of the Calf, then Hashem would let Bilaam’s curses go through which would result in the destruction of the Jews.


The source which supports this idea about Bilaam’s intent on awakening the old Jewish sin of the Eigel is found in a pasuk which says, “And Bilaam saw that it was good in Hashem’s eyes to bless Israel, so he did not go as every other time toward divinations, but he set his face toward the wilderness” (Parshas Balak, 24:1).


What does it mean when the verse says, “But he set his face toward the wilderness?” What did Bilaam want from the wilderness? Rashi (ibid) says that the understanding of these words can be found in Targum Onkolos. Onkolos says that these words mean, “And he turned toward the Calf that Israel worshipped in the wilderness.” This clearly shows us that Bilaam wanted to arouse the old Jewish sin of the Eigel.


However, we find that the Jewish people’s observance of the Three Festivals atones for the sin of the Golden Calf. One source, which the Binyan Ariel cites, as proof that observance of the Shalosh Regalim is mechaper (atones) for the Chet Ha-eigel is a poetic passage from Rebbi Elazar Hakalir.


Before we share this poetic passage, let us share who Rebbi Elazar Hakalir was. His name is familiar to us because he composed many of the kinos (lamentations) that we say on Tisha B’av. Tosafos in Meseches Chagiga (chap. 2, “Ein Dorshin”, pg. 13a, divrei hamaschil “Viragli”) says that Rebbi Elazar Hakalir was none other than Rebbi Elazar the son of Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai.
He was nicknamed “Hakalir” because this word means a “balm” used to soothe the eyes (see Meseches Shabbos, chap. 14, “Shmoneh Shratzim”, pg. 108b, “Kilorin”). Since Rebbi Elazar wrote many poems to soothe Jewish eyes who have cried bitterly over many destructions, he was labelled “Hakalir” (the Balmer).


Now let us get back to one poetic passage that Rebbi Elazar Hakalir wrote for Shacharis Shmoneh Esrei of the second day of Pesach. It says there, “He wanted to snare us with ‘This is your god,’ that those who were not me made a mistake, there will be an atonement eileh b’eileh (these for those), they are my holidays.”
The Binyan Ariel interprets this poem in the following way:


“He wanted to snare us” = meaning, Bilaam wanted to ensnare us by mentioning…


“This is your god” = meaning that Bilaam wanted to bring back the memory of the Chet Ha-eigel at which time it was said, “This is your god O’ Israel which brought you up from the Land of Egypt (Parshas Ki Sisa, 32:4). But you should know…


“That those who were not me made a mistake” = meaning that those who primarily sinned with the Golden Calf were not me (the Jews). Rather, they were the mixed multitude of Egyptian converts. But since the Jews did not rebuke them sufficiently, they needed a kapara. Therefore…


“There will be an atonement ‘eileh b’eileh’ (these for those)” = meaning, there will be an atonement for the Eigel through the observance of the Moadim (festivals) because by both (by the Eigel and by the festivals) it says the word “Eileh.” By the Eigel it says, “Eileh Elohecha Yisrael” (This is your god O’ Israel; Parshas Ki Sisa, 32:4), and by the festivals it says, “Eileh Heim Moadai” (these are my appointed festivals; Parshas Emor, 23:2).


We see from this that the Shalosh Regalim atone for the Chet Ha-eigel. This is why the donkey said to Bilaam that he would never succeed in cursing the Jewish people. This is because Bilaam’s whole plan was to awaken the old Jewish sin with the Eigel, igniting Divine wrath, which would allow his curses to pierce the Jewish people resulting in their annihilation. But the donkey argued that Bilaam’s plan would not work because the Jews observe the Three Festivals which atone for the calf. Therefore, there will be no Divine wrath, and as a result, Bilaam’s curses would not be allowed to infiltrate the Jewish camp, and the Jews would survive.


After establishing that the Three Regalim atone for the Chet Ha-eigel, we have to find out how the Three Regalim atone for the Eigel.


In Toras Hayehudi Hakadosh, the Yid Hakadosh (Holy Jew, Rabbi Ya’akov Yitzchak Rabinowitz of Peshischa, Poland, 1766-1813; “Moadei Hashem,” pg. 85) addresses this by pointing out that the Jews sinned with the Eigel for six hours. This is derived from the words, “And the people saw that ‘Boshesh Moshe’ (that Moshe had delayed) in descending the mountain” (Parshas Ki Sisa, 32:1). The word “Boshesh” can be broken down into two words “Bo-Shesh” (he – Moshe - came in the sixth hour of the day [at noon, and saw the Eigel that the Jews had been worshipping since the morning. This was a total of six hours. See Rashi ibid, citing Shabbos, chap. 9, “Amar Rebbi Akiva”, pg. 89a, Rebbi Yehoshua ben Levi).


Now, the Eigel was “asur” (forbidden), and when it comes to the laws of issur and heter (forbidden things and permissible things), we have a rule of thumb which tells us that issur can become batel (nullified) in sixty times its volume of heter (Meseches Chulin, chap. 7, “Gid Hanasheh”, pg. 98a; Rebbi Yehoshua ben Levi). This means to say that if the Chet Ha-eigel lasted for 6 hours of impurity, that sin could become batel in sixty times that amount of time which is 360 hours of holiness. Where do we find 360 hours of holiness which could be mevatel (nullify) the 6 hours of sin? This is where we turn to the Shalosh Regalim.


The Shalosh Regalim are made up of 15 days; 7 days of Pesach [Biblically], 1 day of Shavuos [Biblically], and 7 days of Sukkos [Biblically]. This equals 15 days in all. Each day consists of 24 hours. Therefore, 15 days X 24 hours per day = 360 hours (See Ben Yehoyada, Rabbi Yoseph Chaim of Baghdad, Iraq, 1835-1905, Meseches Megillah, pg. 32a, in the name of the sefer Sha’ar Hechatzer, and in the name of the sefer Ksav Yad, based on the mesoreh relating to four verses containing the word “Eileh”; Tehillim 42:5, Ki Sisa 32:8, Yeshaya 49:15, and Emor 23:2).


This is how the Three Regalim atone for the Chet Ha-eigel. It is because the 360 hours of Festival holiness which we observe nullifies the 6 hours of unholy Calf sin that we participated in.


The Kosnos Ohr (Parshas Balak) adds that this is the deeper meaning behind the statement, “Anyone who disgraces the holidays is likened to one who worships idols” (Meseches Pesachim, chap. 10, “Arvei Pesachim”, pg. 118a; Rav Sheishes in the name of Rebbi Elazar ben Azaria; based on a juxtaposition between one verse dealing with the prohibition against idolatry and another verse dealing with the mitzva of celebrating Passover, Parshas Ki Sisa, 32:17-18).


A deeper reason behind this Gemara is that if a person disgraces the festivals and does not observe them [Chol Hamoed included; (Rashi ibid)], then he does not have the kapara for the Eigel, because he is missing the 360 hours of holiness which would have nullified the 6 hours of Eigel sin. Therefore, the Gemara says that it is as if he transgressed the sin of idolatry. The Gemara does not specify which type of idolatry he is he is credited with. However, according to the above teaching, he is guilty for the idolatry of the Golden Calf because he has no atonement for it.


The Shvilei Pinchas says that after establishing that the Three Festivals atone for the Golden Calf, we will now be able to understand how Birchas Kohanim atones for the sin of the Golden Calf.


This is because there are three components to Birchas Kohanim: 1) There are 3 verses of Birchas Kohanim, 2) There are 15 words in Birchas Kohanim, and 3) there are 60 letters in Birchas Kohanim. All of these numbers are connected to the atonement for the Golden Calf.


The 3 verses of Birchas Kohanim correspond to the 3 Regalim which atone for the Chet Ha-eigel. The 15 words of Birchas Kohanim correspond to the 15 days of the Regalim which atone for the Eigel, and the 60 letters of Birchas Kohanim represent the bitul of the 6 hours they sinned with the Eigel through the 360 hours of the Regalim.


Moreover, there are 6 blessings in the 3 verses of Birchas Kohanim. The first verse says, “Yevarechecha (may He bless you), and “Viyishmirecha” (and may He keep you); that is two blessings. The second verse says, “Yaer” (may He shine), and “Vichuneka” (and may He be gracious to you); that is two more blessings. The third verse says, “Yisa” (may He lift), and “Shalom” (a blessing of peace), which is another two blessings.


Altogether, there are 6 blessings in Birchas Kohanim. The Shvilei Pinchas says that the reason why there are specifically 6 blessings in Birchas Kohanim is because it teaches us that the Priestly Blessings come to atone for the Chet Ha-eigel which lasted for 6 hours.


The three pesukim (verses) of Birchas Kohanim are connected to the kapara of the Chet Ha-eigel in an even more intimate way. This is because there were three aspects or ramifications of the Chet Ha-eigel.


The first aspect is that Moshe blamed Hashem for the sin with the Golden Calf because He spoiled the Jews with so much gold on their way out of Mitzrayim (Egypt) that their newfound wealth led them astray (Meseches Berachos, chap. 5, “Ein Omdin”, pg. 32a, d’Bei Rebbi Yanai, based on Parshas Devarim 1:1).


Therefore, the first bracha of Birchas Kohanim blesses us with wealth, as it says, “Yivarechecha,” (may He bless you) which Rashi explains means as wealth. However, that verse concludes with the word “Viyishmerecha” (and may He protect you; Parshas Naso, 6:24), which Rashi says means that Hashem should protect us from destroyers who could take our money away. The Shvilei Pinchas says that this could also mean that we should be protected from letting our wealth lead us to destructive sin as it led the Jews to the sin of the Golden Calf.


A second aspect or result of the Eigel was that Hashem said that He would no longer travel with the Jews Himself. Rather, Hashem would send an angel to accompany us (Parshas Ki Sisa, 33:2-3). This meant that there would be distance between Hashem and the Jewish people.


Moshe would not stand for such a situation. Moshe demanded that God travel with the Jews Himself. Moshe gave Hashem an ultimatum. Moshe said that if God would not travel with them directly, they would not travel at all. They would just stay put and never fulfil God’s promise of bringing the Jews into Eretz Yisrael. Moshe demanded that the Jews find “chein” (favor) in God’s eyes once again (Parshas Ki Sisa, 33:15-16) so that He would journey with them Himself. Hashem acquiesced. We did find favor in Hashem’s eyes again, and Hashem did travel with us Himself.


Therefore, the second verse of Birchas Kohanim says, “Hashem should illuminate His face to you and ‘Vichuneka’” (be gracious to you, from the word “chein”; Parshas Naso, 6:25). This is a blessing to us to find chein (favor) in God’s eyes even after we sin.
The third result of the Chet Ha-eigel was that the tribe of Levi, who did not sin with the Eigel, were instructed by Moshe to lift their swords and kill those who were proven (by witnesses and warnings) to have worshipped the Eigel (Parshas Ki Sisa, 32:27). Since the tribe of Levi wound up killing thousands of people from the other tribes, it could have led to animosity from the other tribes against the tribe of Levi.


Moshe did not want there to be this hatred from the other tribes against Sheivet Levi. Therefore, the third pasuk of Birchas Kohanim says, “May Hashem lift His countenance toward you and grant you peace” (Parshas Naso, 6:26). This blessing was meant to restore peace between the people.


At this point, we are going to add just one more dimension to this whole story. When Aharon was hesitant to bring his offerings to the Altar on the eighth day of the Mishkan’s inauguration because he felt guilty about orchestrating the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe said to him, “Why are you embarrassed, it is for this reason that you have been chosen” (Rashi, Parshas Shemini, 9:7, based on Toras Kohanim).


If Aharon did indeed orchestrate the incident with the Jews worshipping the Golden Calf, how could Moshe ask him, “Why are you embarrassed?” Was it not obvious why Aharon was ashamed?


Additionally, how could Moshe say to Aharon, “It is for this reason that you have been chosen.” How could it be that Aharon was chosen because he had orchestrated the sin with the Golden Calf? That does not seem to be logical.


The Chasam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Sofer, 1762-1839, Pressburg) and the Yismach Moshe (Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, 1759-1841, Hungary) answer these questions based on a Vayikra Rabba (Parshas Tzav, 10:3, Rebbi Brachya in the name of Rebbi Aba bar Kahana) which says that when the people panicked due to Moshe’s disappearance, they approached Chur, a prophet, and asked him to build a god to lead them. When Chur refused, the angry mob murdered him.


Then they turned to Aharon and asked him to build a god for them. Aharon said to himself that if he refuses and they murder him, the people would be guilty of what it says, “Should a Kohein and a Prophet be slain in the Sanctuary” (Eicha, 2:20). This sin (of murdering a prophet and a priest on the same day) would anger God so greatly that it would have led to the people’s destruction. So, Aharon thought it through a little bit more.


Aharon said to himself that if I just tell them to make an Eigel, then Hashem would punish them, maybe with annihilation. Therefore, Aharon said to himself, “Better that the sin be pinned on me.” Therefore, Aharon told everybody to give him their gold so that he would build the Eigel. In this way, Hashem would blame Aharon, and the people would get off the hook. It was because of this act of self-sacrifice and selflessness that Hashem anointed Aharon as High Priest (Tehillim, 45:8).


This explains why Moshe asked Aharon why he was embarrassed. Moshe meant to say that Aharon should not be ashamed of orchestrating the Eigel because he did it to save the Jews from annihilation.


This also explains how Moshe could say to Aharon, “This is why God chose you.” It was precisely because Aharon did the Eigel himself in order to remove the blame of sin from the people onto himself that God had chosen him to be the High Priest. After all, the job of a Kohen Gadol is to atone for the people, and Aharon was perfect for the job, as he had just demonstrated.


The Shvilei Pinchas says that this offers us another reason as to why the nusach of the bracha which the kohanim recite prior to Birchas Kohanim is, “Asher Kidishanu Bikidushaso Shel Aharon.” It is because we want everybody to realize that Aharon never really sinned by producing the Calf. Rather, Aharon went through the motions so that he would be blamed instead of the people.


This is how Aharon was zocheh to tap into Birchas Kohanim even before Hashem had instructed him to do so. It was because Birchas Kohanim would atone for the people who truly needed a kapara for the Chet Ha-eigel. The person who would best be positioned to bring about that kapara would be Aharon himself.


This is why the text of the bracha is, “Bikidushaso Shel Aharon.” It is to teach us just what a holy person Aharon was due to his willingness to forfeit his life, in this world and in the next, just to rescue the Jewish people from destruction.


For our practical application of this teaching, whenever we come into contact with Birchas Kohanim, which is every morning after Birchas HaTorah, and which is every morning during the repetition of the Shmoneh Esrei, and which is every Friday night when children are blessed, let us be mindful to remember that the 3 verses of Birchas Kohanim correspond to the Three Festivals which atone for the Eigel, and that the 15 words of Birchas Kohanim correspond to the 15 days of the Shalosh Regalim which atone for the Eigel, and the 60 letters of Birchas Kohanim represent the bitul of the Eigel in 60 times the amount of hours that they sinned with it.


Let us also remember that the first verse about parnassah should also be a blessing for protection so that we should not misuse our wealth which could lead to Eigel-types of sin. Let us remember that the second verse about chein should bring us favor in God’s eyes even after we sin, and the third verse about shalom should bring all Jews together, sinners and non-sinners alike.


But above all, let Birchas Kohanim remind us about Aharon’s willingness to sacrifice himself for the Jewish people. Let us allow Birchas Kohanim to inspire us, even more so, to be more and more like Aharon Hakohen by being moser nefesh, even more so, for our fellow Jews. In this way, we will receive every fathomable blessing from God.


So, may we all be blessed to be even more committed talmidim of Aharon Hakohen, by increasing our willingness and fortitude to sacrifice, even more so, for our fellow Jews, even if it means taking a hit for them, in order that Hashem brings all Jews together again to celebrate in the Beis Hamikdash during the Three Festivals when we will be blessed again by Aharon Hakohen Hagadol, and by all other kohanim, with parnassah, chein, shalom, and every other conceivable blessing.