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J.J Gross

The powerful connection between Parshat Vayera and Parshat Shemini

 Parshat Shemini opens with וַֽיְהִי֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֔י “on the eighth day” (Vayikra/Leviticus 9:1)  with Moshe telling Aharon קַח־לְ֠ךָ֠ עֵ֣גֶל בֶּן־בָּקָ֧ר לְחַטָּ֛את to bring “a young calf for a sin offering” (9:2) וּמִנְחָ֖ה בְּלוּלָ֣ה בַשָּׁ֑מֶן… “and a meal offering mingled with oil” ((9:4)… וַיִּקְח֗וּ אֵ֚ת אֲשֶׁ֣ר צִוָּ֣ה משֶׁ֔ה אֶל־פְּנֵ֖י אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד “And they brought that which Moshe commanded before the Tent of Meeting” (9:5)

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר משֶׁ֔ה זֶ֧ה הַדָּבָ֛ר אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְהֹוָ֖ה תַּֽעֲשׂ֑וּ וְיֵרָ֥א אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם כְּב֥וֹד יְהֹוָֽה: “And Moshe 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) וַֽעֲשֵׂ֞ה אֶת־קָרְבַּ֤ן הָעָם֙ וְכַפֵּ֣ר בַּֽעֲדָ֔ם כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֖ר צִוָּ֥ה יְהֹוָֽה:… “and offer the offering of the people and make atonement for them” ((9:7).

The word וְיֵרָ֥א “VAYERA” is uncommon, appearing only 13 times in the Torah and always, with but one exception (Bereishit/Genesis 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 Bereishit which describes the annunciation to Avraham and Sarah regarding the birth of Yitzhak and the seemingly disconnected episode of the עקדה/Akeda, the binding/sacrifice of Yitzhak.

I would suggest that the VAYERA of Parshat Shemini is not just coincidental to that of Parshat Vayera. In fact, the links and parallels are compelling.

Note that it is on the eighth day ( שמיני/SHEMINI) that G-d orders the sin offering (חטאת) which, in turn, will result in the appearance (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 Avraham as he is “sitting in the tent door” וְה֛וּא ישֵׁ֥ב פֶּֽתַח־הָאֹ֖הֶל  (Bereishit 18:1) And just as Avraham was at the entrance to his tent, likewise the event described in Shemini is וְה֛וּא ישֵׁ֥ב פֶּֽתַח־הָאֹ֖הֶל  “before the Tent of Meeting” (Vayikra 9:5).

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

וַיֵּרָ֤א אֵלָיו֙ יְהֹוָ֔ה בְּאֵֽלֹנֵ֖י מַמְרֵ֑א וְה֛וּא ישֵׁ֥ב פֶּֽתַח־הָאֹ֖הֶל כְּחֹ֥ם הַיּֽוֹם … וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּה֙ שְׁלשָׁ֣ה אֲנָשִׁ֔ים נִצָּבִ֖ים עָלָ֑יו “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 (Bereishit 9:1-20).

There seems to be no connection whatsoever between G-d appearing and the sudden appearance of the three strangers. But, as we shall see, there is indeed every connection here.

Now what does Avraham offer his three visitors? שְׁל֤שׁ סְאִים֙ קֶ֣מַח סֹ֔לֶת ל֖וּשִׁי וַֽעֲשִׂ֥י עֻגֽוֹת … בֶּן־בָּקָ֜ר רַ֤ךְ וָטוֹב֙ “…three measures of fine meal … and a calf tender and good” (Bereishit 18:6-7) And what does G-d require as an atonement offering in Parshat Shemini? עֵ֣גֶל בֶּן־בָּקָ֧ר לְחַטָּ֛את… “a young calf for a sin offering” (9:2) וּמִנְחָ֖ה בְּלוּלָ֣ה בַשָּׁ֑מֶן  … “and a meal offering mingled with oil”. In other words, pretty much the identical menu.

We must first understand that the annunciation to Avraham and Sarah is in fact integral the Akeda story, and not merely because there could be no Akeda without the birth of Yitzhak. It is no coincidence that this notification to the elderly Avraham and Sarah comes on the heels of Avraham’s brit milah that is ordained to take place on the eighth day (SHEMINI).

Embedded in the blood covenant of the brit – for which G-d ultimately protects Avraham’s progeny – is a sacrifice of atonement (קרבן חטאת) that both absolves the Bnei Yisrael of their guilt, and holds within it the promise of ultimate resurrection (תחיית המתים).

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

Conventional wisdom has it that the Akeda episode is about Avraham, how G-d tests his faith by requesting that he sacrifice his “only” son. Nevertheless the Midrash and Talmud make Yitzhak the hero. Yitzhak, through his sacrifice, become 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 Akeda chapter from Parshat Vayera is read during the Rosh Hashanah service to remind G-d that (especially now, absent the atonement sacrifice (חטאת)  ritual in the Temple, we should be forgiven because of Yitzhak’s sacrifice at the Akeda. 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, and then being resurrected by a descending dew.

Pirke deRabbi Eliezer quotes Rabbi Yehuda that on the altar of the Akedah פרחה ויצאה נשמתו של יצחק – that Yitzhak’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 resurrects the dead.

Midrash HaGadol says virtually the same thing.

Shibbolei HaLekt quotes a beraita which goes much further by saying: “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 resurrects the dead’.”

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

All of these are no doubt is response to the puzzling conclusion of the Akeda story; וַיָּ֤שָׁב אַבְרָהָם֙ אֶל־נְעָרָ֔יו וַיָּקֻ֛מוּ וַיֵּֽלְכ֥וּ יַחְדָּ֖ו אֶל־בְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע “So Avraham returned to his young men, and they rose and went together to Beer  Sheva” (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: וְלָמָּה נוֹתְנִין אֵפֶר בְּרֹאשׁ כל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד“And why do we place ashes on each and every one? (on the fast). 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 כְּדֵי שֶׁיִּזְכּוֹר לָנוּ אֶפְרוֹ שֶׁל יִצְחָק “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, …      ור’ יצחק נפחא אמר אפרו של יצחק they  they saw the ashes of Isaac which were resting on that place.”

Clearly then, the introduction of the brit milah, the birth of Yitzhak, and the sacrifice of Yitzhak 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 וַיֵּרָ֤א אֵלָיו֙ יְהֹוָ֔ה בְּאֵֽלֹנֵ֖י מַמְרֵ֑א“And the Lord appeared (VAYERA) to him (Abraham)”. This is the introduction to a very major theme that continues through the Akedah, and which is picked up in 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 G-d). This ritual is clearly an ongoing reminder of what took place in Parshat Vayera. Hence the use of the very term VAYERA here; “And the glory of the Lord shall appear (וירא) to you”  (Vayikra 9:6)

The atonement offering (חטאת) in the Mishkan/Temple is not an actual atonement offering, as this was achieved in perpetuity through Yitzhak’s sacrifice. Rather it is there as a perpetual reminder of that paradigmatic sacrifice Yitzhak made at the Akeda 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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