When I was in high school, my rebbe, Rabbi Farber, z”l, took our class to a restaurant to celebrate our completing a Gemara, a siyum. One boy ordered shish kebab on big skewers. As young teenage boys, we thought these long metal skewers were quite cool. Some of us took on a dare: to take one of the skewers from the restaurant. I accepted the challenge and hid the long skewer under my coat. When we came back to class, everyone was playing with it and Rabbi Farber saw the commotion, with one boy wielding the long skewer like a sword. He was very upset to discover I had taken something that didn’t belong to me.
With sensitivity but firmness he motioned me to go with him outside the classroom to speak privately. He explained how businesses lose money with such pranks and that I needed to return it with a full apology. “But the restaurant is in downtown Manhattan and I have no way of getting it back there,” I said. “No problem,” he replied. “Tomorrow after school I will drive you there and you will go inside and tell the owner what happened and apologize.”
I was very embarrassed by what I did and asked if the rebbe could return it for me and I would call the owner to apologize. But Rabbi Farber insisted I return it personally. As we were driving, I was nervous and very ashamed. I apologized and the owner was forgiving and told me that this should be a lesson to never take something that is not mine, even as a joke or for fun. It was a memorable life lesson that it’s important to own up to a mistake.
Parshas Shemini opens with the korbanos (sacrifices). Moshe instructs Aharon and his sons to bring on the eighth and final day of the inauguration of the Mishkan, a young calf as a korban chatas (sin offering) for his involvement in the sin of the Golden Calf and to demonstrate that Hashem is forgiving him.
Aharon hesitated and, still embarrassed, he approached the mizbei’ach to offer the calf. In fact, the Midrash Tanchuma tells us that when Aharon approached the mizbei’ach, he saw an image of a cow! To Aharon, the corners of the mizbei’ach looked like cow horns and he felt shame for his involvement in the sin of the Golden Calf. The Baal Haturim says this is alluded to in the word krav (approach), where the letter “reish” has two crowns on it, which resemble two horns of a cow. Rashi explains this is why Moshe told Aharon the following words of encouragement: “Why are you ashamed? This is precisely why you were chosen.”
Moshe’s words are curious: How was Aharon’s involvement in the Golden Calf debacle a reason for him to be chosen as the kohen gadol? The Sfas Emes answers brilliantly that Aharon’s profound embarrassment for doing any misdeed was precisely why he was chosen for greatness. He had internalized his lesson. Indeed, the quality of being ashamed of a misdeed is a gift Hashem granted Bnei Yisrael at Har Sinai.
At times we might slip up and do something we regret. This feeling can paralyze us! We need to recognize that a deep feeling of remorse for our mistakes is the first step back to potential greatness. Our job is then to convert our feelings into action by apologizing and asking for forgiveness, or doing whatever it takes to rectify the situation.
This week we also read Parshas Parah, where Bnei Yisrael are instructed to take a red cow and use its ashes in the purification process of those who are defiled from coming in contact with a deceased person. Rashi tells us that the Parah Aduma (red heifer) is our means to attain forgiveness for the sin of the Golden Calf. In effect, we let the mother cow come and clean up the mess caused by the baby (golden) calf.
When I was newly married, my parents hosted a Shabbos meal for me and my young married friends with their small children. In the middle of the meal, a curious 2-year-old walked into the living room and thought the planter was a sandbox, as was evident from the dirt that was all over him and the floor. The mother washed the child, but the dirt on the floor was muktzah so it stayed there. After Shabbos, my friend came back to clean up the mess.
Embarrassment is well…embarrassing!! But the more clearly we recognize and deeply feel embarrassment for a misdeed, and take any necessary steps to remedy what we’ve done, the more potential we have, like Aharon Hakohen, to achieve personal greatness.