Sin offering for God
PLEASE NOTE: Because of the timing of the end of Pesach, Pinchas is the Parasha this week in Israel and next week in the Diaspora.
The Talmud (Shavuot 9a) cites Reish Lakish, who explains: The Holy One, blessed is He, said, “May this goat atone for Me because I made the moon small.”
There is a note printed in the margin of the Talmud which says, “This is a secret of the kabbalistic secrets, and it should not be understood like it seems, Heaven forbid!”
I don’t know anything about kabbalistic secrets, but I had to find some kind of explanation of this strange offering brought as an atonement for God.
The Talmud in Chullin (60b) explains further:
Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi contrasted two verses. It is written, “God made the two great lights” (Bereishit 1:16) and it is written, “The big light and the small light.”
The moon said before God, “Master of the Universe, is it possible for two kings to rule with one crown?” God replied, “Go and make yourself smaller.”
The moon said, “Since I said something correct, I should make myself smaller?”
God said, “Go and rule during both day and night.”
The moon replied, “What does it help to have a candle in the bright light?”
God said, “Go; Israel will count days and years by you.”
The moon replied, “They will also count by the sun…”
“Go; the righteous will be called by your name – Yaakov the small (Amos 7:2), Shmuel the small (a 1st century tanna), David the small (I Shmuel 17:14).
God saw that the moon was still not happy. God said, “Bring atonement for me for making the moon small.”
The Maharsha (Shmuel Eidels 1555 – 1631) explains (in his commentary to Chullin 60b) that when the Talmud describes God making the moon small, it is an allusion to the role of Knesset Yisrael in this world. Knesset Yisrael is an attribute of God which is bound up with the Jewish people.
He explains that God made the Jewish people small, “For you are the smallest of all the nations,” (Devarim 7:7). In so doing, He also limited the ways in which He is perceived in the world. For God is most clearly perceived through His relationship with the Jewish people.
While the other nations shine brightly like the sun, but then burn out, the Jewish people wax and wane like the moon, but are always eclipsed by the sun.
Yaakov Avinu was eclipsed by his brother Esav, who established a kingdom for his children several generations before the Israelites had their own kings. King David, the greatest paradigm of a Jewish king, was not as powerful or famous as his contemporaries and counterparts. And the tanna Shmuel established the prayer for heretics, acknowledging that they were stronger and more widespread than the Jews who remained small.
The darkness of the new moon
This is why God instructs us to bring an atonement for Him on Rosh Chodesh. That is the time when the moon is barely visible, at its smallest point in the month. By analogy, there are times when we as individuals and as a nation are almost destroyed. But we know that in just a couple of weeks, the full moon will shine brightly in the sky. However bad things are, we trust that God will save us and make things better.
The message of the sin offering is to hang on. Even if things seem bleak, even if it is hard to see in the darkness of our lives, things will improve. God is with us just as much when the moon is hard to see as when it is high in the sky, showing us the way.