J.J Gross

Parshat Shemini is Parshat Vayera Redux

Parshat Shemini opens with “on the eighth day” וַֽיְהִי֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֔י (Vayikra 9:1) with a call by Moshe for Aharon to bring “a young calf for a sin offering”  (9:2) – קַח־לְ֠ךָ֠ עֵ֣גֶל בֶּן־בָּקָ֧ר לְחַטָּ֛את )“and a meal offering mingled with oil”  (9:4)- וּמִנְחָ֖ה בְּלוּלָ֣ה בַשָּׁ֑מֶן )… “And they brought that which Moshe commanded before the Tent of Meeting” – וַיִּקְח֗וּ אֵ֚ת אֲשֶׁ֣ר צִוָּ֣ה משֶׁ֔ה אֶל־פְּנֵ֖י אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד (9:5) “And Moshe said, This is the thing which the Lord commanded you to do: and the glory of G-d shall appear (VAYERA) to you”  (9:6) – וַיֹּ֣אמֶר משֶׁ֔ה זֶ֧ה    הַדָּבָ֛ר אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְהֹוָ֖ה תַּֽעֲשׂ֑וּ וְיֵרָ֥א אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם כְּב֥וֹד יְהֹוָֽה … “and offer the offering of the people and make atonement for them”  – וַֽעֲשֵׂ֞ה אֶת־קָרְבַּ֤ן הָעָם֙ וְכַפֵּ֣ר בַּֽעֲדָ֔ם כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֖ר צִוָּ֥ה יְהֹוָֽה (9:7).

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

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

I would suggest that the VAYERA of our Parsha (Shemini) is not coincidental to that of Parshat Vayera. In fact they are linked, and compellingly so.

Note that it is on the eighth day (בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֔י ) that God orders the sin offering which, in turn, will result in the appearance (וְיֵרָ֥א) of His glory. The eighth day is, of course, when a ברית מילה (ritual circumcision) is performed.

It was while recuperating from his brit that God appears to Avraham as he is “sitting in the tent door” – וַיֵּרָ֤א אֵלָיו֙ יְהֹוָ֔ה בְּאֵֽלֹנֵ֖י מַמְרֵ֑א וְה֛וּא ישֵׁ֥ב פֶּֽתַח־הָאֹ֖הֶל כְּחֹ֥ם הַיּֽוֹם (Bereishit 18:1) . And just as Avraham was at the entrance to his tent, likewise the event described in Shemini is “before the Tent of Meeting” אֶל־פְּנֵ֖י אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד (9:5).

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

“And the Lord appeared (VAYERA) to him (Avraham) by the terebinths of Mamre; as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; and he (Avraham) looked, and, lo, three men stood by him” – וַיֵּרָ֤א אֵלָיו֙ יְהֹוָ֔ה בְּאֵֽלֹנֵ֖י מַמְרֵ֑א וְה֛וּא ישֵׁ֥ב פֶּֽתַח־הָאֹ֖הֶל כְּחֹ֥ם הַיּֽוֹם (Bereishit 9:1).

There seems to be no connection whatsoever between God 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.

Now what does Abraham offer his three visitors? “…three measures of fine meal … and a calf tender and good”שְׁל֤שׁ סְאִים֙ קֶ֣מַח סֹ֔לֶת .. בֶּן־בָּקָ֜ר רַ֤ךְ וָטוֹב֙ (Bereishit 18/:6-7).

And what does God require as an atonement (חטאת) offering in our Parsha? “a young calf for a sin offering”  עֵ֣גֶל בֶּן־בָּקָ֧ר לְחַטָּ֛את –(9:2) … “and a meal offering mingled with oil” וּמִנְחָ֖ה בְּלוּלָ֣ה בַשָּׁ֑מֶן

In other words, pretty much the identical menu.

It is important to understand that the annunciation to Avraham and Sarah is in fact part and parcel of the Akedah story, and not merely because there could be no Akedah without the birth of Yitzhak.

And it is no coincidence that this notification to the aged Avraham and Sarah comes on the heels of his ברית מילה that is ordained to take place on the eighth day (שמיני). For embedded in the blood covenant of the brit – for which G-d ultimately protects Avraham’s progeny – is a sacrifice of atonement that both absolves the Bnei Israel of their guilt, and holds within it the promise of ultimate resurrection (תחיית המתים).

This is echoed once again in our Parsha; And (Aharon) dipped his finger in the blood and put it upon the horns of the altar  –  וַיִּטְבֹּ֤ל אֶצְבָּעוֹ֙ בַּדָּ֔ם וַיִּתֵּ֖ן עַל־קַרְנ֣וֹת הַמִּזְבֵּ֑חַ (Vayikra 9:8). The “horns of the altar” being reminiscent of the horns of the ram that ostensibly supplanted Yitzhak at the Akedah.

Conventional wisdom has it that the Akedah episode is about Avraham; how God tested his faith by requesting that he sacrifice his “only” son. Nevertheless the Midrash and Talmud make Yitzhak the hero.

Indeed, Yitzhak, through his sacrifice, becomes the ultimate merit offering 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 God that (especially now, absent the atonement sacrifice ritual in the Temple) we should be forgiven because of Yitzhak’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 Yitzhak having died on the Akedah altar, after which he was resurrected by a descending dew.

Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer quotes Rabbi Yehudah 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 are you God who revives the dead,’

Midrash HaGadol says virtually the same thing.

Shibbolei HaLekt quotes a beraita which  goes much further by saying:  כשנעקד יצחק אבינו על גבי המזבח ונעשה דשן והיה אפרו מושלך על הר המוריה, מיד הביא עליו הקב”ה טל והחיה אותו   –  “When Yitzhak 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 revives the dead’.”

And there are other Midrashic sources which describe Avraham drawing a quarter of  Yitzhak’s blood with similar descriptions of death and resurrection.

All of these are no doubt is response to the puzzling conclusion of the Akedah story; “So Avraham returned to his young men, and they rose and went together to Beersheba”  – וַיָּ֤שָׁב אַבְרָהָם֙ אֶל־נְעָרָ֔יו וַיָּקֻ֛מוּ וַיֵּֽלְכ֥וּ יַחְדָּ֖ו אֶל־בְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע (Bereishit 22:19) with no mention of Yitzhak.

Biblical critics argue that the story as it appears in the Torah is abridged, with verses that described the actual sacrifice of Yitzhak 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 says:  “In order to remind us of the ashes of Yitzhak כדי שיזכור לנו אפרו של יצחק.

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 Yitzhak which were resting on that place” ור’ יצחק נפחא אמר אפרו של יצחק ראו שמונח באותו מקום

Clearly then, the introduction of the brit milah, the birth of Yitzhak, and the sacrifice of Yitzhak are all a single unit with their ultimate covenantal purpose being an expiation for the iniquities of the Jewish People.

Hence the opening of Parshat Vayera with “And the Lord appeared to him” – וַיֵּרָ֤א אֵלָיו֙ יְהֹוָ֔ה,  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 Avraham for the three angels (only this time as an atonement offering to God).

This ritual is clearly an ongoing reminder of what took place in in Parshat Vayera. Hence the use of the very term VAYERA here; “And the glory of the Lord shall appear (VAYERA) to you” – וְיֵרָ֥א אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם כְּב֥וֹד יְהֹוָֽה. (Vayikra 9:6)

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

And if anyone finds all of this strikingly similar to the Christian ritual – now you know where they took it from. And it explains why, until Christianity was legalized by Emperor Constantine in 313 CE, the visual rendering for the crucifixion was always an illustration of the Akedah.

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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