Parshat Pekudei: The Power of Responsibility
by Avichai Foa, Director of Educational Projects, Ohr Torah Stone
Only this week, after Bezalel had completed creating all of the priestly vestments, does the Torah inform us that the construction of the Mishkan has finally ended: “All the work of the Mishkan of the Tent of Meeting was completed; the children of Israel had done [it]; according to all that Hashem had commanded Moses, so they had done.”
We would have expected the Torah to make this announcement in last week’s Parsha, after Bezalel and Oheliav had finished creating the Mishkan itself and all the vessels used within. Clearly, the priestly vestments – however important they may be – are supplementary to the construction of the Mishkan; they aren’t an integral part of it, like the vessels or the Mishkan itself. Moreover, the entire Jewish people had been eagerly awaiting the completion and inauguration of the Mishkan – and like anything else in life that we yearn for or aspire to, once we are able to declare that we’ve reached our destination, the preparations are generally considered over. No one would wait beyond what seems necessary.
If so, why does the Torah wait until the priestly garments are ready before declaring that the Mishkan has been completed?
Since the Torah does wait, we can infer that the priestly service in the Mishkan was of unparalleled importance; that it is exactly what justifies the very existence of the Mishkan. For without the priests, the vessels of the Mishkan would be meaningless. They would be useless and lack purpose. The priestly service could not be performed without these special garments: “At a time when their vestments are upon them, their priesthood is upon them; but when their vestments are not upon them, their priesthood is not upon them.” If a priest were to perform priestly services wearing anything other than the priestly garments, he would have been seen as an outsider, and thus deserving of the death penalty.
Perhaps one might say that what makes these garments so important is that the service in the Temple, particularly the daily sacrifices on behalf of the nation, allows everyone to continue living their everyday lives, despite their sins. Anyone who had sinned would offer a sacrifice in atonement for their souls. Seemingly, this wasn’t enough, and another person needed to take responsibility as well for the commission of the sin. The encounter between the sinner and the priest transfers some of the responsibility to the priest. Consequently, the sin is atoned for and dissolves. All of this occurs until later when the sinner fully repents. Then, and only then, can the sin be permanently erased.
Why, however, should the priests take even partial responsibility for a private individual’s sins?
This role stems from the most important, yet most obscure priestly role: to teach the Torah and its commandments to the people of Israel, a fact that Ezekiel stresses in his prophecy: “And My people shall they teach the difference between holy and profane, and cause them to discern between the impure and the pure.”
Since the priests were the Jewish people’s main teachers, they share the responsibility, albeit indirectly, for what the Jewish people had done. They are thus responsible, albeit indirectly, not just for their own sins, but also for the sins of the Jewish people at large. It is this requirement to assume the responsibility that requires them to partake of the sacrifices offered by the Jewish people. This act of eating isn’t like any other eating; the sacrifices must be eaten in a state of holiness and purity, and they may only be eaten in one place – within the Temple courtyard. The obvious conclusion is that if they don’t eat it, the sins of the sacrifice-owners will not be atoned.
Though the priests are unable to nullify the sin, they can take responsibility for the commission of that sin, and are required to do so. If so, the priests assume partial responsibility (in addition to the sinner himself, who, of course, must assume part of the responsibility), but there are circumstances under which the priests “pass” some of the responsibility onto the sacrifice itself, and in doing so, they relieve themselves of some of this heavy burden. This is what happens, for example, with the scapegoat during the Yom Kippur services. The Torah says the following about the scapegoat: “The he-goat shall thus carry upon itself all their sins to a precipitous land…”
Again, a question emerges: can sins be carried over? Does a miserable little goat really have the power to bear all of the sins of the Jewish people on its back? Can an animal like a goat, which isn’t a sentient being, be responsible for the sins of an entire nation?
Perhaps this episode is there to imply that like the goat which was pushed off a cliff and into the abyss, so too human beings are “pushed” to commit transgressions, all because there is a state of evil in the world. This state of evil is what supposedly bears responsibility (which is clearly indirect) for people’s sins, and it is what makes deviation and incitement to commit sins possible. Responsibility is thus borne by that little goat, which in this setting symbolizes the fact that there is evil in the world, and it is this same evil force that is pushing the goat and sending it into the abyss.
However, there is also a goat for Hashem, which symbolizes the other side of the coin. The goat that is sacrificed in the Temple symbolizes the fact that Hashem has supposedly taken personal responsibility for having allowed evil to exist in this world.
Hashem wants to give us free choice, and for that to happen, there must be a reality of evil alongside a reality of good. It follows that Hashem does not purge, remove, or purify a sin immediately after it was committed. Instead, He waits to ascertain whether the sinner willfully repent and truly regret his wrongdoings, and commit to choosing to do good in the future. If this is what actually happens, only then will Hashem completely purge the sin.
This might be the reason why the 13 attributes of mercy begin with “Hashem, Hashem, who is compassionate and gracious,” continue with “forgiving iniquity and rebellion and sin,” and end with “yet He does not completely clear [the sin].” In other words, Hashem does not erase the sin. He waits, carries the sin with Him, and only when it becomes clear that the sinner had conclusively and clearly abandoned the sin will Hashem permanently erase it. If there were no need to take responsibility, there would also be no need for a state of evil in the world. Our lives would be much easier. They would also be rather dull, and we would be completely incapable, or not nearly as capable, of personal progress and development.
This is the great responsibility that each of us have and, as teachers charged with leading the Jewish people down the path of the Torah and the service of Hashem, the priests share in this responsibility. Every day, every hour, and every minute, we must carefully choose our actions. We must also review our actions and ourselves, and if we had sinned, we must fully repent.
The priestly service is what allows us to go through this complex process time and again, and through this process, our lives are given meaning.