“Can a Perfect G-d Sin?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Pinchas, is replete with fascinating narratives. The parasha opens with G-d’s reward to Pinchas for his zealous attack on the public sinners, Zimri and Cozbi. It continues with the war against the Midianites, the census, the story of the daughters of Tzelafchad and the laws of inheritance. Most of parashat Pinchas, however, is dominated by the litany of sacrificial offerings–daily, Shabbat and holiday–the stuff we usually can’t wait to be done with!

For the skeptics out there (and for probably many non-skeptics as well), the ritual of animal sacrifice is a challenging part of Torah. And yet despite such difficult and challenging portions of the Torah, it is necessary, at least for the believer, to reaffirm that every word of Torah is valid and precious. Maimonides (the Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204) deals in a forthright manner with the question of the seemingly irrelevant and obtuse matters found in the Torah. In his Commentary on the Mishnah (Sanhedrin, Chapter 10), Maimonides unequivocally affirms: “Every verse in the Torah is equally holy.” In developing his argument, Maimonides proceeds to quote a series of verses that seem thoroughly insignificant. He cites the verses: “The sons of Ham were Kush and Mizraim” (Gen 10:6), “His [Hadad’s] wife’s name was Mehitebel,” (Gen 36:39), “and Timnah was a concubine [of Eliphaz]” (Gen 36:12). After citing these verses, Maimonides dramatically declares that these verses are equal in holiness and meaning to the famed verses of the Ten Commandments, “I am the L-rd your G-d” (Ex 20:2) and the central declaration of faith, “Hear O Israel” (Deut 6:4). “This all originates from G-d,” says Maimonides, “and are all part of G-d’s Torah, which is perfect, pure, holy and true!”

By focusing on one of the verses featured in parashat Pinchas, which concerns the sacrifices brought on Rosh Chodesh, the New Moon festival, we may learn how seemingly irrelevant and obscure verses are repositories of unfathomable wisdom and insight. In Numbers 28:15, the Torah instructs the priests to bring one he-goat for a sin offering unto the L-rd. In Hebrew it reads: “Oo’seh’eer eezim eh’chad l’chatat la’Hashem.” Although “l’chatat La’Hashem” is usually translated for a sin offering unto the Lord, it is more accurately translated as “a sin offering for G-d!” Can it be that the Torah is suggesting that G-d needs to bring a sin offering? Sounds heretical!

There is a well known textual problem in the Creation story found in Genesis 1:15, concerning the formation of the sun and the moon. That verse first states that G-d made the “two great luminaries,” “et sh’nai ham’orot hag’dolim.” Then it declares that G-d made “the greater luminary [the sun] to dominate the day, and the lesser luminary [the moon] to dominate the night.” We all know that the moon, which has no light of its own, cannot be compared to the sun in either its size or its energy. How then can the Torah refer to the moon as one of “the two great luminaries”?

According to the Midrash (the legendary interpretation of the Bible), G-d originally created both the sun and the moon to be of equal size. Unhappy with sharing the limelight, the moon approached G-d and complained that it is impossible for two monarchs to reign over the same domain. G-d responded forcefully and declared that since the moon complained, the moon will be reduced, and the sun will remain large. The Midrash concludes, stating that G-d sensitively compensates the moon by allowing the stars to shine at night, to minister to the moon and to enhance its reduced size.

The Talmud, in Chullin 60b, in an obscure but most remarkable statement, cites in the name of the sage Resh Lakish that the reference to the sin offering of Rosh Chodesh is the only time with respect to sacrifices that the phrase “l’chatat” appears in this form in Scripture. This unusual phraseology, says Resh Lakish, implies that G-d, so to speak, declares: “May this [he-goat] be an atonement for Me for reducing the moon!”

Had this statement not been cited in the name of the great sage Resh Lakish, it surely would have been condemned as unadulterated heresy–since it clearly implies that G-d sinned!

This Midrash, and the Talmudic statement of Resh Lakish, underscore once again one of the most remarkable features of our Torah and a recurring pattern found in our faith system. While the Torah surely is a book of law, of history and of philosophy, it is first and foremost a guide book of ethics and morality! Whenever there is a conflict between an historical or philosophical truth and an ethical truth, the Torah always comes to support and bolster the ethical and moral truth.

Yes! In our faith system, G-d depicts Himself as expressing remorse for reducing the moon. How fascinating, how fantastic that an Omnipotent deity expresses remorse. How revolutionary that our G-d considers Himself a sinner!

We can learn much from G-d’s “sin offering.” We mortals of flesh and blood need to own-up to our shortcomings. We need to brazenly confess our own wrongdoings and be prepared to bring our own sin offerings. We need, at least on occasion, to publicly confess our shortcomings in order to impress upon others that we too are fallible. But too often we don’t know where to start. That is why G-d, so to speak, allows Himself to serve as an example for us, by offering His own sin offering.

And so we see how each verse of the Torah is of infinite value–-even those heavy duty and obscure verses that deal with difficult subject matters such as animal sacrifice. To have dismissed the verse that appears in Numbers 28:15 would have meant to eliminate one of the great lessons of Judaism, of G-d and of morality–and to have diminished the ultimate value of Torah.

May you be blessed.