This week’s parsha begins with Moshe’s instructions (in the name of God) to Aaron as to how he is to commence his inauguration as kohein gadol:
וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל־אַהֲרֹן קַח־לְךָ עֵגֶל בֶּן־בָּקָר לְחַטָּאת וְאַיִל לְעֹלָה תְּמִימִם וְהַקְרֵב לִפְנֵי יְהוָה
and he said unto Aaron: ‘Take thee a bull-calf for a sin-offering, and a ram for a burnt-offering, without blemish, and offer them before the LORD.
Aaron is to sacrifice both an eigel ben bakar and a ram to God. There is deep symbolism behind the dual-korbanos which we will address, but we must first figure out what exactly the eigel ben bakar is. (The common translation of “bull-calf” is mildly disingenuous in that it does not actually translate the words.) The phrase ben bakar is seemingly redundant. All calves are the children of cattle; all “eigels” are by definition “ben bakars”. What is the need for the Torah to expressly stipulate this? Indeed, it should be noted that this is actually the only time in the entirety of the Torah that there is a commandment for someone to bring an eigel ben bakar to God.
Let’s see if we can try to uncover some of the symbolism and messages lurking beneath the surface.
Rashi & R. Hirsch
Rashi (1:2) notes that it is no coincidence that an eigel is the first thing that Aaron brings before God considering that, whether on purpose or not, he was one of the masterminds behind the sin of the eigel ha’zahav. Surely there is some level of atonement going on here.
To understand the dual-korban we turn to R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (1:2). He explains that all leaders must posses both the confidence, leadership, and growth mentality symbolized by the ayil l’olah, as well as a sense of fallibility and recognition of inexperience symbolized by the young ben bakar. Thus, Aaron, on the day of his inauguration, brings these two elements before God.
Ramban (1:4) adds an entirely different dimension to our conversation. Hundreds of years before modern psychology, Ramban cuts to the very core of human emotion. Aaron, he explains, was surely reluctant to take his place as the kohein gadol. He saw the mizbeach with its four corners, or kranos, and they reminded him of the kranos, or horns, of the eigel ha’zahav he played such a key role in. Aaron was absolutely fixated on the major misstep of his life, his terrible sin. He was deeply and psychologically affected, and was terrified and reminded of his misdoings. Aaron saw an eigel every time he looked at the mizbeach. How could he possibly approach God given what he had done? Intimidated by his own sins, Aaron recoiled before his duty. But Moshe, his brother, encouraged him and pushed him forward, telling him to bring the eigel ben bakar.
R. Hirsch goes on to explain that an eigel ben bakar is older than an eigel is, but is not quite as old as a bakar either. It is not quite a child, but it is not quite adult. Aaron was to specifically bring an animal that was in a state of flux between two stages of its life — just as Aaron was. The moment of his inauguration, Aaron needed to understand that he was transitioning from one stage of his life, and entering into another. For Aaron, in that moment, was at that point and age in his life at which one must learn from his mistakes instead of being defined by them. One must confront his or her failures and learn and grow from them.
Aaron, like the eigel ben bakar he was to offer to God, was young enough to still make mistakes, but old enough to be able to learn from them.