The New Moon of Nissan is associated with anticipation of the joy of redemption. Yet, the first Rosh Chodesh Nissan after the great exodus from Egypt was one in which joy was mingled with grief and Aharon the High Priest left God hanging.
According to our sages the inauguration of the Mishkan was on the New Moon of Nissan. In the ecstasy of the moment, two of Aharon’s sons violated the boundary between the human and the divine and were consumed by God’s fire. The moment of joy was marred by tragedy.
The deaths of Nadav and Avihu is followed by an uncharacteristic legalistic exchange between Moshe and Aharon.
“And Moshe diligently sought the goat of the sin offering, and, behold it was burnt: and he was angry with Elazar and Itamar, the sons of Aharon that were left alive, saying, Why have you not eaten the sin offering in the holy place, seeing it is most holy, and God has given it to you to bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the Lord? […] And Aharon said to Moshe, Behold, this day have they offered their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord; and such things have befallen me that if I had eaten the sin offering today, should it have been accepted in the sight of the Lord? And when Moshe heard that, he was pleased.” (Vayikra 10:16 – 20)
Our sages are divided as to the identity of the sin offering. (Zevachim 101a-b). I wish to explicate the opinion that it was the sin offering of the New Moon, Rosh Chodesh, which was not consumed. Investigating this possibility will not only uncover the hidden meaning of the minor festival of the New Moon but teach us something fundamental about our relationship with God.
But first some necessary background; on the New Moon an additional sacrifice (musaf) is brought in the temple. It consists of a goat as a sin offering (Hatat) in addition to the burnt offerings. Portions of the sin offering are eaten by the kohanim. Concerning this aspect of the ritual, the Talmud states that the kohanim eat and the owners of the sacrifice are atoned (Pesahim 59b). By accepting and eating the food provided by the sinner, the Kohen shows that something redeeming has emerged from the sin and thus participates in its expiation (kaparah).
Moshe is concerned that the atonement of the sin offering will be incomplete since the offering was burnt rather than eaten.
For which sin does the sin offering of the New Moon atone? The Talmud (Chullin 60b) provides the staggering answer.
Simeon b. Pazzi pointed out a contradiction [between verses]. One verse says: And God made the two great lights, and immediately the verse continues: The greater light . . . and the lesser light. The moon said unto the Holy One, blessed be He, ‘Sovereign of the Universe! Is it possible for two kings to wear one crown’? He answered: ‘Go then and make thyself smaller’. ‘Sovereign of the Universe’! cried the moon, ‘Because I have suggested that which is proper must I then make myself smaller’? […] On seeing that it would not be consoled the Holy One, blessed be He, said: ‘Bring an atonement for Me for making the moon smaller’.
It is God Himself who is in need of atonement consequent to His diminishing the moon. Surely, R. Shimon b. Pazzi would have been banished from numerous rabbinic associations had he lived today.
What does the diminishing of the moon symbolize that it should be considered a sin in need of atonement? The light of the sun is powerful and steady. It has come to symbolize eternity and God’s enduring and perpetual beneficence. The moon palely reflects the light of the sun; it waxes and wanes. Just prior to the new moon total darkness prevails. The emergence of the new moon symbolizes hope and regeneration (hence the proclamation upon the blessing of the new moon, David melekh Yisrael hai ve kayam. David King of Israel lives!). The waning moon symbolizes deterioration and death. The moon has come to symbolize all creation. Thus the diminishing of the moon by God is symbolic of the imperfection inherent in creation. Our world is full of beauty, wonder and astonishing harmony. Yet it is also fatally flawed and astoundingly cruel. Natural disasters and human atrocities conspire to bring unspeakable suffering into the world.
Death is the embodiment of all that is imperfect in God’s creation. Death is not abstractions for Aharon; his two eldest sons were just consumed by God’s fire. By refusing to partake in the sin offering of God, he is refusing to absolve God of criminal liability for death and suffering in the world.
This point is more acute when we realize that this sin offering for this rosh chodesh is the first rosh chodesh. While later generations brought and consumed the sin offering of Rosh Chodesh, accepting God and the imperfect world He created, Aharon has registered his protest. God will have to bear His sin alone; Aharon will not atone for Him.
Nissan is a time of joy and celebration of redemption. Why was it marred by the tragedy of Aharon?
The way Aharon handled his grief is a lesson to all on how to build and maintain a living relationship with God. In an honest relationship we dare not repress our feelings lest resentment and alienation grow. Aharon by refusing to eat the sin offering, is insisting on an authentic relationship with God. Not one based upon servile submission and sycophantic platitudes. The intensity and – yes – the recrimination of God implicit in Aharon’s behavior is actually the foundation upon which he builds his authentic relationship with God.
The preacher who obsessively apologizes for God and believes he is protecting Him is in fact erecting barriers to Him. God needs no protection and suffers no apologies. An authentic relationship with Him must be based first and foremost upon honesty.