One of the reasons given for the Levites’ positions of holiness was on account of their not having participated in the sin of the Golden Calf. Separating themselves from the community of sinners put them on a higher level, and made them replace the firstborns of all tribes, who had been previously designated to serve in the Mishkan.
But if the Levites are so pure, why are they given a sin offering to bring as part of their consecration ceremony?
The verse tells us: “They shall take a young bull along with its grain offering consisting of the best grade wheat meal mixed with olive oil. You shall also present a second bull as a sin offering” (8:8).
Rashi has two comments in these verses, which require a bit of explanation. On verse 7, Rashi quotes Rabbi Moshe HaDarshan, who noted that since the Levites were assigned to work the Mishkan as an atonement for the firstborns who had committed idolatry, since idolatry is called “the sacrifices of the dead,” and since the metzorah is also called “dead,” G-d had the Levites undergo a shaving process similar to the metzorah.
On verse 8 (our verse in question), Rashi notes that the sin-offering bull is referred to as “the second bull,” to compare it to the bull for a burnt offering — suggesting that in this case, both are burned and not eaten (although normally a sin offering is partly burned and partly eaten by the priests). Rashi indicates that this idea supports Rabbi Moshe HaDarshan’s teaching in the previous verse, which implied that the Levites are partly appointed as a result of a communal idolatry — for which the sin offering is not eaten.
Rashi further states that this was a change indicated by the needs of the moment, because normally a goat is brought as a sin offering, along with the bull of the burnt offering.
This approach alone would suggest that reading between the lines shows us this offering was for a communal sin of idolatry, brought at the time of the consecration of the Levites on behalf of the Israelites.
But still, it seems odd that the Levites, at the moment of their ultimate consecration, would have to bring a sin offering, especially since there is plenty of evidence that a calf Aharon had brought some time ago had atoned for the Golden Calf.
This is why it is always advisable to read other commentators, some of whom have very different perspectives.
R. Yosef Bechor Shor says the sin offering was meant to cover whatever personal sins the Levites may have had — after all, who is perfect? — and the fact that it was a bull indicates that these sins did not include idolatry, for which the offering would be a goat. Chizkuni couches this slightly differently, suggesting the assignment of the bull as a sin offering was to protect the Levites from even the slightest suspicion that they personally needed atonement for idolatry.
Another perspective is that the Levites, similar to the princes at the end of last week’s Torah portion, are helping to consecrate the Mishkan. As such, their sin offering (each prince also brought a sin offering) is a way of setting in motion how offerings work.
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch brings a different perspective based on the tense change in the verse, from plural to singular: “They shall take a bull … and you shall take a second bull.” The sin offering, he posits, is not on account of a sin lurking in their past, but an investment in and in consideration for their future mission, which is now being assigned to them.
The message is clear: the Levites represent us, but we also represent ourselves. As much as we can take responsibility for our own actions, sometimes our actions go far above and beyond our capacity to atone. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies.
On the other hand, all of us could use a bank account of atonement for the future. We know we are imperfect, we know we will err. How can we minimize the damage coming in the future for things we haven’t done yet? By bringing the sin offerings in advance. By training ourselves in advance. By building stock with G-d in advance.
When the time comes, and when we find ourselves culpable for communal sins, we should be able to stand tall and say, “We may have been wrong. But we have a very strong relationship with You. May You grant us forgiveness, and atonement because we have demonstrated our fealty to You through our love and commitment to Your Torah and statutes.”
No Jew is perfect. However, as a collective unit, we are all in this world and this life together. It does not mean we are all the same or that we all must live the same way. But in the end, if we indeed are brothers and sisters, we share in a common destiny that we are all a part of.
Even the firstborns, who lost their jobs for participating in idolatry, shared in that common destiny.