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Parashat Shemini: Shame

The Torah in Parashat Shemini describes the events that took place on the first day the Mishkan opened. For seven days, each day, Moshe erected the Mishkan, offered special sacrifices on behalf of Aharon and his sons, and then dissembled the Mishkan. But now, on the eighth and final day of the inauguration process, the Mishkan was permanently set up and Aharon and his sons served as Kohanim for the very first time.

Our Sages understand from the Torah’s description that Aharon was at first hesitant to approach the Mizbe’ah (altar) to perform the service. The Mizbe’ah was constructed with four "horns" – protrusions from each of the four top corners – which brought to Aharon uncomfortable memories about the Egel Ha’zahab (golden calf). The altar’s "horns" reminded him of the horns of a young calf, which conjured up associations with the sin of the golden calf, for which he was partially responsible. After all, when the people approached him and asked for a leader to replace Moshe Rabbenu, Aharon suggested that they bring their gold, and he then formed a golden calf which they worshipped. Although his intentions were noble (a topic which requires a more thorough discussion in a separate context), Aharon still felt accountable for the calamity that ensued. And so now, when he was summoned to officiate in the Mishkan for the first time, and to offer sacrifices on behalf of the people, he felt ashamed. He asked himself, "Am I really worthy of this? Should I be the one to perform the holy service before G-d after the grave mistake that I made? How can I do this?"

Moshe then turned to Aharon and reassured him, telling him that to the contrary, he was the most qualified person for this important and prestigious task. Aharon then approached the Mizbe’ah and began his work as Kohen Gadol.

The question arises as to why, in fact, Aharon was indeed qualified. Weren’t his fears justified? Did he not play a major role in the grave sin of the golden calf, notwithstanding his sincere motives? Wasn’t he responsible for Beneh Yisrael’s worship of a graven image?

One answer, perhaps, is that Aharon was deemed worthy specifically because of the reservations he felt. Moshe was telling him that he was the "right man for the job" because he felt embarrassed about what he did. The very fact that the altar’s resemblance to the golden calf caused Aharon shame and humiliation made him worthy of serving before G-d.

Feeling shame, very often, is precisely what brings us closure, and atonement. We are all human, and so, by definition, we will make mistakes, including very serious mistakes. One of the crucial steps for overcoming and recovering from our mistakes is genuine shame and pangs of guilt. We should feel uneasy and uncomfortable about our mistakes and shortcomings, rather than happily accept them. If a person speaks freely with his peers about his misdeeds, about the inappropriate activities his was once involved in, then he is not feeling genuine shame and remorse. If he feels embarrassed about these experiences, and uncomfortable sharing them unnecessarily, then he is headed in the proper direction of growth and progress. And then he, like Aharon, is deemed worthy of approaching the "Mizbe’ah," of serving Hashem despite the mistakes and missteps of his past.

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