Joy and the Possibility of Forgiveness: Sh’mini
Sh’mini: Leviticus 9:1-11:47
The inaugural ceremony of the Tabernacle’s dedication and the ordination of Aaron and his sons to the priesthood which began with last week’s Torah portion, concludes this week. “BaYom HaSh’mini – On the eighth day” of this protracted affair the final sacrifices are made on the altar, after which, in the culminating moments, we read:
Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he descended from having performed the sin-offering, the offering-up, and the wholeness-offering. Moses and Aaron then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of the Eternal appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from the Presence of the Eternal and consumed the offering-up and the fat-parts on the altar. And all the people saw, sang joyful songs, and fell upon their faces. [Lev. 9:22-24]
One of the midrashim (rabbinic homiletic exegesis) on this passage explains that on this day there was joy before God in the heavenly realms just like on the day when heaven and earth were created. Why? Our sages taught that the eighth day completed Creation. In building the Tabernacle and ordaining priests the Israelites created the possibility of teshuvah, repentance, return, and ultimately forgiveness. It takes the flawed humanity to manifest teshuvah; God alone in His perfection could not have done it without human partnership.
Thus, we are told, joy overwhelmed those witness to the final moments of the dedication ceremony when God appeared and, in a display of fire, accepted the sacrifices that Aaron had made on their behalf. They knew then that they had been forgiven, and that no matter how far from God they would stray, no matter how apparently lost from the Source (remember the Golden Calf?), there would always remain the promise of return, the potential for atonement, for mending and healing. Moreover, they also knew that what they had created was not only the possibility of forgiveness for themselves but for all future generations.
This possibility of teshuvah is part of our inheritance. Now, like then, we are the ones called upon to create the container in our lives in which teshuvah can take place. And since we no longer offer up animals and priests are no longer with us, we are also the ones to perform the necessary personal “sacrifices” toward forgiveness, and atonement. This is a liberating practice. As we learn to forgive, heal and mend; as we perform acts of charity and lovingkindness as part of this process of teshuvah, we free ourselves from the layers of anger, resentment, guilt and fear that have walled-off our hearts and weighed us down. We draw nearer to the Source within, closer to the Divine. Teshuvah becomes a pathway to experiencing joy; a practice toward living a joyful life.
And like our ancestors before us, we might even find ourselves singing joyfully in the experience of the Divine Presence burning up—in Its all-consuming fire—those hardened shells around our hearts; remembering in that moment the One we share, the One we are, the One we have always been.