Shemini - 5779
Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47
Savlanut is the Hebrew word for “patience,” and when it comes to understanding the book of Leviticus that’s exactly what many of us need! In this week’s parasha Shemini we encounter the culmination of the eight-day dedication ceremony of Aaron and his sons as the priests of Israel. For each of the past seven days, sin offerings and sacrifices have been offered, but God has not answered. On the eighth day (where our parasha begins), Moses calls Aaron to offer several additional sacrifices, beginning with a calf as a sin-offering on behalf of himself and all Israel. Aaron does exactly has Moses commands. Then something odd happens:
“And Aaron raised his hands toward the people and blessed them and came down from having done the sin offering, and the burnt offering and community sacrifice. And Moses, and Aaron with him, came into the Tent of Meeting, and they came out and blessed the people, and the glory of God appeared to all the people.” [Lev. 9:22-23]
The question this passage raises has to do with Moses’ involvement. If Aaron is the one responsible for the sacrifices, then why does God only appear after Moses joins in? The great rabbinic commentator Rashi looks to two passages from Sifra (a collection of midrashim or rabbinic legends attached to specific Torah portions). The first passage focuses on Aaron, saying that after a week of unanswered sacrifices he had become agitated. According to the midrash Aaron expressed his fears to Moses that God has not come because God was still angry with Aaron for making the Golden Calf. In response Moses entered the Tent with Aaron to pray on his behalf.
The second passage focuses on the people, who felt humiliated that a whole week had passed and still the Divine presence had not descended upon the Tent. They too worried that they had not been forgiven. So, Moses blessed them, and said, “This is the thing God has commanded you to do so that the glory of God will appear to you.” [Leviticus 9:6] Then the midrash inserts another line from Moses, not found in the Torah: “My brother Aaron is more worthy and important than I, for through his offerings and service the Divine Presence will rest among you.” Immediately thereafter, the Glory of God appeared.
What do these stories teach us?
Let’s take a closer look.
First, it is no coincidence that Moses specifies a calf for the sin offering. There must be a connection with the sin of the Golden Calf. Perhaps this is why Maimonides taught that we must use the agency of our sin to atone for our sins. Second, the sin of the Golden Calf happened because the Israelites were impatient for Moses to return from the top of the mountain. And here is a great irony: the same is true here in Shemini. Aaron and Israel are both agitated because they have been offering sacrifices for seven whole days and nothing has happened. They are impatient!
To be fair, this is not on them alone. We Jews have many strengths, but patience is not among them. In Hebrew, the word savlanut shares the same root as the words sabal (porter), savel (suffering) and sevel (burden). We may not have a monopoly on this, but for us waiting is a suffering – a burden we would rather not bear. Patience is the ability to carry the burden.
In both midrashim Moses offers comfort. For Aaron he offers prayers in the Tent to help allay Aaron’s impatience. However, for Israel, Moses actually teaches patience, in effect saying that they have done everything right and should not doubt that Aaron is the one who will succeed on their behalf. In other words, Moses offers hope that because we took the proper action everything will work out in the end. Perhaps this is the secret to cultivating more savlanut for us as well, whether it is trying to understand the book of Leviticus, waiting in line at the supermarket, or being stuck in traffic. As for those times when we truly don’t know, for example in times of illness or economic worry, we might also benefit from learning how to better bear the burden. Patience does not mean inaction, but rather, that we should not act without proper consideration. For more often than not, a response to even a serious challenge is far better than a knee jerk reaction, and impatience leads to some of the biggest mistakes of all.
 Although the verse here comes almost twenty verses earlier in the actual Torah, this is midrash, which is not always concerned with a linear flow of time.