This is the matter that you shall do for them to sanctify them
to minister to me. Take one young bull and two unblemished rams.
Big Bull Or Little Calf1
Rashi: The significance of the young bull was that it would atone for the
incident of the Golden Calf, a calf being a younger form of a bull.
Gur Aryeh: Why would we use a bull rather than a calf itself to atone for a
sin committed with a calf?
Know that the calf was not a figure chosen at random, but had profound
significance. Those responsible for the debacle of the eigel looked
specifically to the bull for the image they wished to use for their avodah.
They chose the bull because it was one of the four animals of the merkavah/
chariot in the prophecy of Yechezkel. 2 (Since, as Chazal tell
us, even the common folk were treated to fuller prophetic visions at the
splitting of the Yam Suf than Yechezkel, they presumably had access to the
imagery to which he was later treated .) In that prophecy, one of the four
animals that bore Hashem’s Throne was the bull. The people understood the
single Throne to be a representation of the inscrutable Oneness of Hashem.
This idea was so lofty, that it could not serve their need to connect with
Him. But the Throne stood on a vehicle drawn by four animals. This implied
that a vehicle was necessary to bring a humanly-graspable conception of
Hashem to places remote from His majesty. The four animals represented the
four directions of a world of physical dimension, not the ethereal
non-dimensionality of a spiritual world. They would pull the vehicle,
carrying the Throne to the corners of our world.
Moreover, the bull stood to the left, which always implies something of
secondary importance. To those who trekked through the Wilderness, this
meant that if any image could be teased out of the merkavah to serve alone,
it would be the bull. They chose an eigel, a calf, rather than a bull,
because they understood that any spiritual force does not have a full
representation in the world of time and space, but only a weak shadow of the
original. The bull of the prophetic vision was therefore reduced to a calf
when it stood ready to serve as a stand-in for the original. The eigel
performed as a junior version of the original, but in their minds, it stood
for the bull.
While this explanation is more than satisfactory, there are a few gaping
holes in the theory. If it were true, every korban connected with atonement
for the sin of the Golden Calf would be a bull rather than a calf. This is
far from the truth. In fact, the parallel offerings of Aharon and the Jewish
nation – at the time of their presentations during the inauguration of the
mishkan - were both calves3 and not bulls.
Moshe’s rank and role dictated the difference. Moshe was on a higher level;
he also represented din, judgment, rather than the chesed of Aharon. For
Moshe it was appropriate to use the more powerful image of the bull. The
others would use the altered and weakened image of the calf.
Why all the duplication of atonement effort? If Moshe’s earlier offering
brought atonement, why would Aharon and the Bnei Yisrael bring korbanos to
make the same statement? The answer is that atonement comes in steps. For
seven days of the inauguration, Moshe was in charge, and performed the
avodah. He served as a kohen, and his daily korban mentioned in our pasuk
told his generation that Hashem had forgiven them. That, however, did not
mean that Hashem was ready, as it were, to readmit them to the closeness of
close interaction. Aharon would take their kaparah request to the next level
though his avodah on the eighth day of the mishkan’s inauguration.
Furthermore, it is a truism that moments of great spiritual accomplishment
are fraught with danger, because the yetzer kora mounts the greatest
resistance at those moments, never conceding ground without a good fight. It
was no coincidence that Klal Yisrael plunged so deeply and suddenly at the
precise moment that Hashem, as it were, handed the luchos to Moshe as the
representation of having received the Torah. Klal Yisrael was particularly
imperiled at that moment, and unfortunately lost the battle to the pushback
of the yetzer kora. We can take away a principle from this. Moments of
great spiritual triumph precipitate counter-activity by the Accuser. Past
flaws and indiscretions become increasingly problematic. The appropriate
antidote is atonement granted in advance by Hashem Himself.
This was the position that Klal Yisrael found itself in during the mishkan’s
inauguration – not once, but twice. The seven days positioned the kohanim to
become appropriate masters of the avodah. The eighth day began the regular,
continued operation of the mishkan. Each of these accomplishments would be
resisted by the Soton. Each required kaparah for the gaping hole in the
spiritual record of the people. Moshe’s korban brought that kaparah during
the seven days, while those of Aharon and the people brought kaparah
independently needed because of the great milestone achieved on the eighth day.
We are still puzzled by the use of a bull – whether a young calf, or an
older adult – to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf. The
gemara4 tells us that golden vestments were banned from the
inner avodah because “an accuser cannot become a defender.” Gold stands in
perpetual reminder of the sin of the Golden Calf. As an accuser, it cannot
serve to help defend the Jewish people in their quest for forgiveness. The
gemara says that an overlay of gold similarly invalidates a shofar. Yet in
the days of the milu’im, bulls and calves play a role in securing atonement
for the sin of the eigel!
We observe an obvious distinction between cases. An “accuser” like gold or a
calf cannot generally be a suitable vehicle for forgiveness for unrelated
transgressions. But where atonement is requested specifically for the sin of
the golden calf, i.e. where they are used to achieve atonement for their own
improper use in the past, they have a definite, desired role. When their
purpose is not related to forgiveness at all but to some other function of
the avodah, then the location makes a difference. They become invalid only
in the holiest places in the interior of the mikdosh.
1. Based on Gur Aryeh, Shemos 29:1; Tifferes Yisrael chap. 38; Netzach
Yisrael chap. 2
2. Yechezkel 1:10
3. Vayikra 9:2-4
4. Rosh Hashanah 26A