When Aaron Went to Eden: Commentary on Parashat Tzav 5783

By Rabbi Jonah Rank, President and Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary


When we make a big mistake, an animal impulse inside us invites us to run away—and the bigger the mistake, the farther we may wish to flee. We may wait before we reach out again to a friend we offended, whether intentionally or not. We may seek never to step foot in a store where we once overreacted to a clerk, whether consciously or not. We hope that avoidance will resolve the conflict. But it rarely does.

Great shame must have overwhelmed Aaron in the aftermath of his leading the construction of that golden calf (in Exodus 32–34), a false god competing with the Master of the Universe being touted by Aaron’s brother, Moses, a champion of monotheism. Although Moses, in his embarrassment, worked things out with God (Exodus 32:26–34:35), Aaron and God went a long time without any serious reconciliation or even any contact. This tension must have been deeply unsettling for Aaron as he would eventually prepare for his first day on the job as High Priest in the ancient Israelite religion.

Avoidance goes only so far.

God and Aaron needed a clean slate if they were going to work together. Seeking a third party as an intermediary, God, in this week’s parashah, has reached out to Moses to make the connection. God commands Moses in Leviticus 8:2:


קַ֤ח אֶֽת־אַהֲרֹן֙ וְאֶת־בָּנָ֣יו אִתּ֔וֹ וְאֵת֙ הַבְּגָדִ֔ים וְאֵ֖ת שֶׁ֣מֶן הַמִּשְׁחָ֑ה וְאֵ֣ת ׀ פַּ֣ר הַֽחַטָּ֗את וְאֵת֙ שְׁנֵ֣י הָֽאֵילִ֔ים וְאֵ֖ת סַ֥ל הַמַּצּֽוֹת׃

Take Aaron and his sons with him and the clothes [of the priests] and the anointment oil [for the priests] and the bull of atonement and the two rams [for the daily whole-burnt sacrifice] and the basket of wafers [to be used at the ceremony for ordaining Aaron and his sons as priests].


Although wafers do not walk around and should be transported by being taken from place to place, Moses may have wondered why God, in all of God’s glory and mystery, suggested that Moses should take (“קַ֤ח,”kach) his brother, a seemingly independently minded and able-bodied man. An early Aramaic translation of this text, Targum Onkelos, does not believe that Moses was asked to take Aaron though. Instead, Onkelos records Moses hearing God say, “קָרֵב” (karev, “bring near”)—which could have spooked Aaron for at least two reasons. First off, Aaron probably wanted to run away and remain far from God. Secondly, the word karev is related to korban (קָרְבָּן, “sacrifice”), and Aaron probably did not want to share the same fate as the bull or the rams.

A wordier and later (probably early medieval) Aramaic translation, Targum Yonatan, intersperses its ‘translation’ of the Torah text with its own explanation of why Moses would need to “bring near” at all. In stating “קְרֵיב יַת אַהֲרן דְאִתְרַחֵק עַל עוֹבְדָא דְעֵיגְלָא וְטוֹל יַת לְבוּשַׁיָא” (“Bring Aaron near, for he has become distant on account of the incident with the calf, and lift the clothing”), the author of Targum Yonatan recognized that bringing clothes to this event was hardly as wrought as bringing Aaron along for a moral reconciliation. Aaron was far more than the uniform he wore. Underneath, Aaron remained a man that God had once expressed the intention to eviscerate, or at least to resent (Exodus 32:33–34).

An early modern world traveler and major fundraiser for the Jews in his native Land of Israel, Rabbi Chayyim Yosef David Azulai (1724–1806) paused between his adventures to author, among other works, his Torah commentary Chomat Anakh, composed during the last 32 years of his life. His work is sprinkled with rare insights on the Torah that had been scattered across the many rare books and manuscripts that he found along his journeys. Among these teachings, Rabbi Azulai cited what appears to be a now-lost work (“ספר נצח ישראל כתיבת יד,” “a manuscript of the book Netzach Yisra’el”), which shares that the last letter of each of the first three words of Leviticus 8:2, “קַ֤ח אֶֽת־אַהֲרֹן֙,” (kach et Aharon “Take Aaron”) yield in correct order the consonants of the word חָתָן (chatan, “groom”). The Netzach Yisra’el that Azulai knew (but not any of the extant works known today by this name) suggested that God hinted to Moses, “קחנו בתופים ומחולות ובשמחה גדולה כמו שעושין לחתן” (“Take that [man, Aaron], with drums and dances and with great joy, just as we do for a groom [on his wedding day]”).

What was the cause for such excitement? The ordination ceremony pending for Aaron and his sons was destined to be a reparative moment. One of the first orders of business was going to be an offering of penance, clearing Aaron’s record of his most infamous sin. He would soon distance himself from any golden calf of the past and become acquainted with sacrificial bulls prepared to God’s liking. In viewing Aaron’s preparations to reset his life, the itinerant Mediterranean mystic Rabbi Avraham Sabba (died 1508) argued in his Torah commentary Tzeror HaMor that Aaron found himself turning towards some primordial state of existence. A bit disjointed, Rabbi Saba decoded the symbolism of Leviticus 8:2:


ויתן עליו את הכתנת. ובבניו וילבישם כתנות. כנגד כתנות עור של אדם הראשון. ואת שמן המשחה רמז לתורה שנקראת שמן…. ואת פר החטאת כנגד אדם הראשון. כאומרם ז”ל שור שהקריב אדם הראשון קרנותיו קדמו לפרסותיו. שנאמר ותיטב לה’ משור פר מקרין מפריס. וזהו פר החטאת. כי בחטאו קדמו קרנותיו לחטוא קודם שיפריס ע”ג קרקע. כי ביום שנולד חטא. ואת שני האלים כנגד קין והבל שהיו אלי הארץ. ואת סל המצות כנגד עץ הדעת שאכל אדם הראשון. שלדעת חכמים חטה היתה. ולפי שאדם חטא בסבת הנחש הוא שטן הוא יצר הרע המחמיץ העיסה. צוה בכאן בסל מצות. ואת כל העדה הקהיל אל פתח אהל מועד. שכולם צריכין כפרה מחטא אדם הראשון שהוא היה חשוב ככל העדה. ואז קרב אותם וירחץ אותם במים. להעביר גלולים מן הארץ. ויתן עליו את הכתונת. שהוא כנגד כתנות עור של אדם הראשון. וכן כל הבגדים שהיו לו לכבוד ותפארת. לא בגדי בוז וקלון כבגדי אדם הראשון שהיו ממלבוש עורות הבהמות

“He [i.e., Moses] placed upon him [i.e., Aaron] the tunic” (Leviticus 8:7), and, for his [i.e., Aaron’s] sons, “that [God {or person Moses}] dressed them” “in tunics” (Genesis 3:21). “And the anointment oil” (Leviticus 8:2) is an allusion to the Torah, which is called “oil…” “And the bull of atonement” (Leviticus 8:2) corresponds to the Primordial Human [Adam]. This is as those of blessed memory said, that the horns of the bull that the Primordial Human sacrificed protruded [beyond] its hooves, as [implied when Psalm 69:32] says [when referencing the horns before the hooves], “For this will be better to Adonai than a bull with horns, with hooves.” And this is “the bull of atonement” (Leviticus 8:2), for, in one’s sinning, horns preceded to sin before hooves [could land] upon the ground. For on the day that that [Primordial Human] was born, he sinned. “And the two rams” (Leviticus 8:2) correspond to Cain and Abel, who were [false] gods of the earth. “And the basket of wafers” (Leviticus 8:2) corresponds to the Tree of Knowledge from which the Primordial Human ate, for, according to the sages, [that tree] was [of] chittah (חִטָּה, “wheat”). And because Adam chata (חָטָא, “sinned”) on account of the serpent [in the Garden of Eden,] which was a satan [שָֹטָן, “[heavenly] prosecutor”], which is the evil inclination that leavens [or spoils] dough. [God] commanded as such with regards to the “basket of wafers” (Leviticus 8:2). [God further commanded Moses:] “And assemble all of the congregation [of Israel] at the opening of the Tent of Meeting” (Leviticus 8:2) because all of them were in need of atonement from the sin of the Primordial Human, who[, as the only human in his time,] is considered [as if he encompassed] the entire congregation [of Israel]. So, he [i.e., Moses] then drew [Aaron and his sons] near and bathed them in water [as stated in Leviticus 8:6], “to remove entities of idolatry from the earth” [as stated in the prayer Aleynu]. “He [i.e., Moses] placed upon him [i.e., Aaron] the tunic” (Leviticus 8:7), which corresponds to the “tunics of skin” (Genesis 3:21) of the Primordial Human. And so too [did] all of the clothes that had been [made] for that [High Priest], “for glory and for beauty” (Exodus 28:2)—not clothes [borne] of dishonor and shame [upon recognizing nudity,] like the clothes of the Primordial Human, which were of a uniform of animal skins.


God not only offered Aaron a redo for himself. In this moment anticipating Aaron’s entry into a High Priesthood of communal service, God offered a reset to the entirety of humanity. Could Aaron learn better than Adam did what belonged to him and what was off-limits? Could Aaron guide his children to treat each other more lovingly than Cain and Abel did? Could Aaron wear clothes that not only kept his body private but actually worked to remind him of the sacred responsibilities he carried?

In its concern for the picayune details of holy vessels, sacred garments, proper sacrifices purities, impurities, cleanliness, and uncleanliness—the Book of Leviticus is a work that, on its surface, seems mostly removed from the ethical and relational concerns that most heavily weigh on our hearts. A deeper mystical dive into the undercurrents of the Book of Leviticus reveal though that the establishment of the Priestly class symbolized a God who created the world yet again. God is a God who not only makes but who remakes. God may have created the universe in the beginning of the Book of Genesis. God may have destroyed humanity and generated a new generation of humans after the flood in Noah’s lifetime. God may have even witnessed the dying breaths of Israelite monotheism when Aaron constructed a golden calf, yet God did not destroy Aaron; rather, God gave Aaron and religion another chance. God recreated the world of Aaron and Priestly ritual.

In highlighting the fresh start God grants one family inextricably linked to a public scandal, Parashat Tzav embeds a secret in the ordination of Aaron and his sons. If we want to create worlds, we must be ready to offer second chances.




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