A Genesis Reprise In Leviticus

A Genesis Reprise In Leviticus

Shabbat candles: 7:03 p.m.
Torah: Lev. 9:1-11:47; Numbers 19:1-22
Haftorah: Ezekiel 36:16-38
Havdalah: 8:03 p.m.

Shemini opens with “on the eighth day,” with Moses telling Aaron to bring “a young calf for a sin offering … and a meal offering mingled with oil,” to the Tent of Meeting. “And Moses said, “and the glory of God shall appear (vayera) to you … and offer the (sacrifices) and make atonement for them” [Leviticus 9:1-7].

The word “vayera” is uncommon, appearing only 13 times in the Torah and always, with but one exception [Genesis 46:29], referring to a dramatic appearance of God or an emissary angel. The most dramatic of these vayeras is that of the eponymous parsha describing the annunciation to Abraham and Sarah regarding the birth of Isaac and the seemingly disconnected episode of the Akedah, the binding/sacrifice of Isaac.

The vayera of our Shemini is not coincidental to parshat Vayera; the links and parallels are compelling. It is on the eighth day (shemini) that God orders the sin offering which, in turn, will result in the appearance (vayera) of His glory. The eighth day is when a brit milah is performed. And it was while recuperating from his brit milah that God appears to Abraham as he is “sitting in the tent door” [Gen 18:1]. The event described in Shemini is “before the Tent of Meeting” [Lev. 9:4].

The opening verse of parshat Vayera would seem to be a total non-sequitur: “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 [Gen. 9:1].

Now what does Abraham offer his three visitors? “Three measures of fine meal… and a calf, tender and good” [Gen. 18:6]. And what does God require as an atonement-offering in our parsha? “A young calf… and a meal-offering mingled with oil” [Lev. 9:2]. Pretty much the identical menu.

The annunciation to Abraham 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 Isaac. And it is no coincidence that this notification of Isaac’s birth comes on the heels of Abraham’s brit milah on the eighth day (shemini). For embedded in the blood covenant of the brit –for which God ultimately protects Abraham’s progeny – is a sacrifice of atonement that both absolves the Children of Israel of their guilt and holds within it the promise of the ultimate resurrection (tihiyat ha’metim). This is echoed in Shemini. ”

Conventional wisdom has it that the Akedah is about God testing Abraham’s faith. However, the Midrash and Talmud make Isaac the hero. Isaac, through his sacrifice, becomes the merit-offering par excellence of the Jews, and catalyst for awareness of resurrection.

The Akedah is read on Rosh HaShanah to remind God that we should be forgiven because of Isaac’s sacrifice. This is not mere allegory. The Midrash and Talmud are replete with references both direct and oblique to Isaac having died at the Akedah, and then resurrected by a descending dew.

Shibbolei HaLekt quotes a beraita which goes much further by saying: “When Isaac was bound on the altar and was turned to ash, his ashes were cast upon Mt. Moriah, the Holy One… brought dew and resurrected him.”

There are other similar Midrashic descriptions of Isaac’s death and resurrection. All of these are, no doubt, in response to the puzzling conclusion of the Akedah: “So Abraham returned to his young men, and they rose and went together” [Gen. 22:19], with no mention of Isaac.

The Talmud [Taanit 16a] asks, “Why do we place ashes on each and every one? … One says, “In order to remind us of the ashes of Isaac.” And Tractate Zevahim [62a], says of the Jews returning from the Babylonian exile, “How did they know where to place the altar? … they saw the ashes of Isaac which were resting on that place.”

Clearly then, the introduction of the brit milah, Isaac’s birth and the Akedah 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, reprised in Shemini, which begins by reminding us of the covenant of brit milah, and then reprising the foods prepared by Abraham for the angels (only this time as an atonement offering to God). This ritual is an ongoing reminder of what took place in parshat Vayera; hence the very use of the word “vayera” here.

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

J.J. Gross is a writer living in Jerusalem.

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