Parshat Shemini – Aqedah Redux?

Parshat Shemini opens with ויהי ביום השמיני  “on the eighth day” (Lev 9:1) with a call by Moses for Aaron to  קח לך עגל בן בקר לחטאת ואיל לעלה תמימים …ומנחה בלולה בשמן “ bring a young calf for a sin offering” (9:2) … “and a meal offering mingled with oil” (9:4)…)  ויקחו את אשר צוה משה אל פני אהל מועד “And they brought that which Moshe commanded before the Tent of Meeting” (9:5)   ויאמר משה זה הדבר אשר צוה ה’ תעשו  וירא אליכם כבור ה’ “And Moses said, This is the things which the Lord commanded you to do: and the glory of G-d shall appear (VAYERA) to you” (9:6)…  ועשה את קרבן העם וכפר בעדם“and offer the offering of the people and make atonement for them” ((9:7).

The word  וירא/VAYERA is uncommon, appearing only 13 times in the Torah and always, with but one exception (Gen 46:29), referring to a dramatic appearance of G-d or one of G-d’s emissary angels on His behalf.

The most dramatic of these VAYERAs is that of the eponymous Parsha in Genesis which describes the annunciation to Abraham and Sarah regarding the birth of Isaac and the seemingly disconnected episode of the Akedah, the binding/sacrifice of Isaac.

I would suggest that the VAYERA of our Parsha (Shemini) is not coincidental to that of Parshat Vayera, and the links and parallels are compelling.

Note that it is on the eighth day ( שמיני/SHEMINI) that G-d orders the sin offering which, in turn, will result in the appearance    וירא/VAYERA) of His glory. The eighth day is, of course, when a brit milah is performed. And it was while recuperating from his brit milah that G-d appears to Abraham as he is  יושב פתח האהל sitting in the tent door”(Gen 18:1). And just as Abraham was at the entrance to his tent, likewise the event described in Shemini is  אל פני אהל מועד before the Tent of Meeting” (9:5).

Parenthetically it is worth nothing that the opening verse of Parshat Vayera would seem to be a total non-sequitur:

וירא אליו ה’ באלני ממרא והוא ישב פתח האהל כחם היום. וישא עיניו וירא והנה שלשה אנשים נצבים עליו  “And the Lord appeared (VAYERA) to him (Abraham) by the terebinths of Mamre; as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; and he (Abraham) looked*, and, lo, three men stood by him (Gen15:1-2). There seems to be no connection whatsoever between G-d appearing in the first part of the verse and the sudden appearance of the three strangers. But, as we shall see, there is indeed every connection here.

(*NOTE the spelling of וירא /appeared is the same as וירא /looked)

Now what does Abraham offer his three visitors?  שלש סאים קמח סלת לושי … ו… בן בקר רך וטוב “…three measures of fine meal … and a calf tender and good” (Gen 16:6-7). And what does G-d require as an atonement offering in our Parsha?   עגל בן בקר לחטאת … “a young calf for a sin offering” (9:2) …  ומנחה בלולה בשמן“and a meal offering mingled with oil”  (9:4). In other words, pretty much the identical menu.

For openers, it pays to understand that the annunciation to Abraham and Sarah is integral to the Akedah story, and not merely because there could be no Akedah without the birth of Isaac. And it is no coincidence that this notification to the aged Abraham and Sarah comes on the heels of his brit milah that is ordained to take place on the eighth day (שמיני/SHEMINI). For embedded in the blood covenant of the brit – for which G-d ultimately protects Abraham’s descedants – is a sacrifice of atonement that both absolves the Children of Israel of their guilt and holds within it the promise of ultimate resurrection (תחיית המתים).

This is echoed once again in our Parsha;   ויטבל אצבעו בדם ויתן על קרנות המזבח And (Aaron) dipped his finger in the blood and put it upon the horns of the altar” (Lev: 9:9) – the horns of the altar being reminiscent of the horns of the ram that ostensibly supplanted Isaac at the Akedah.

Conventional wisdom has it that the Akedah episode is about Abraham; how G-d tested Abraham’s faith by requesting that he sacrifice his “only” son. Nevertheless the Midrash and Talmud make Isaac the hero. Isaac, through his self-sacrifice, becomes the merit offering par excellence of the Jewish People, and the catalyst for our awareness of תחיית המתים (resurrection of the dead.)

As we all know, the Akedah chapter from Parshat Vayera is read during the Rosh Hashanah service to remind G-d that (especially now, absent the atonement sacrifice ritual in the Temple) we should be forgiven because of Isaac’s sacrifice at the Akedah. And, make no mistake, this is not mere allegory.

The Midrash and the Talmud are replete with references both direct and oblique to Isaac having died on the Akedah altar and then being resurrected by a descending dew.

Pirke deRabbi Eliezer quotes Rabbi Judah that on the altar of the Akedah  פרחה ויצאה נשמתו של יצחק – that Isaac’s soul exited his body. This was followed by a resurrecting dew, and hence we have the second blessing of the Amidah;  ברוך אתה ה’ מחיה המתים – Blessed is He who quickeneth the dead.

Midrash HaGadol says virtually the same thing.

Shibbolei HaLekt quotes a beraita which goes much further by saying: When Isaac was bound on the altar and was turned into ash, and his ashes were cast upon Mt. Moriah, the Holy One blessed be He immediately brought dew and resurrected him … immediately the Serving Angels began to say Blessed are You who quickens the dead’.”

And there are other Midrashic sources which describe Abraham drawing a quarter of Isaac’s blood, and similar descriptions of death and resurrection.

All of these are no doubt is response to the puzzling conclusion of the Akedah story וישב אברהם אל נעריו ויקומו וילכו יחדו אל באר שבע “So Abraham returned to his young men, and they rose and went together to Beersheba” (Gen 22:19) with no mention of Isaac.

Biblical critics argue that the story as it appears in the Torah is abridged, with verses that described the actual sacrifice of Isaac having been expunged for reasons of political correctness. The Midrash, no less troubled by the textual problems, provides the descriptions cited above to explain the lacunae.

The Talmud Taanit 16a: “And why do we (on the Yom Kippur fast)place ashes on each and every one?  There is a difference of opinion between Rabbi Levi and Rabbi Hanina. One says “we are all reckoned before You as ashes, and one says “In order to remind us of the ashes of Isaac”.

And in Tractate Zevahim 62a (when the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile) “How did they know where to place the altar? … Rabbi Isaac Napha said, they saw the ashes of Isaac which were resting on that place.”

Clearly then, the combination of the introduction of the brit milah, the birth of Isaac, and the Akeidah of Isaac are all a single unit with the ultimate covenantal purpose being an expiation for the iniquities of the Jewish People. Hence the opening of Parshat Vayera with  וירא אליו ה’ באלני ממרא  “And the Lord appeared (וירא) to him (Abraham)” as this is the introduction to a very major theme that continues through the Akedah, and which is picked up in our Parshat Shemini which begins by reminding us of the covenant of brit milah, and then reprises the foods prepared by Abraham for the three angels (only this time as an atonement offering to G-d). This ritual is clearly an ongoing reminder of what took place in in Parshat Vayera. Hence the use of the very term וירא/VAYERA here; “And the glory of the Lord shall appear (וירא) to you” (Lev 9:6).

The atonement offering in the Mishkan/Temple was not an actual atonement offering, as atonement was achieved in perpetuity through Isaac’s sacrifice. Rather it was there to remind us on an ongoing basis of the paradigmatic sacrifice Isaac made at the Akedah which not only assures our forgiveness but also of our ultimate resurrection.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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