Humility from Heaven: Pinhas 5781

“And there shall be a sin offering for the Lord” (Numbers 28:15).  

Did God commit a sin? What? When? We know all about the sin of Adam and Eve, but God is perfect, right? Indeed, the Torah does describe God in Deuteronomy 32:4 as “The Rock, the Perfect One…whose ways are just..who is never false, but true and upright.” Yet this week in a passage explaining the New Moon sacrifices, the Torah says to bring “a sin offering for the Lord.” Did God sin?

Our rabbis offer two explanations, one rational and the other more imaginative. The rational answer is that the experience of sin is essentially an internal, psychological state and so it is “for the Lord,” in the sense that God alone understands our inner motives. The second explanation, said first by the Talmudic sage Reish Lakish, is that God asks the people of Israel to offer this sacrifice each new moon “as atonement for My making the moon smaller” (B. Sh’vuot 9a).

In turn, this explanation alludes to yet another Jewish legend based on Genesis 1:16, that God initially created the sun and moon as equals, but then diminished the moon, creating a celestial hierarchy. Each month as the moon darkens and disappears, this “sin” is repeated. And so each month, God asks the people of Israel to atone for God’s own affront.

This is a complex story with many layers. One take away is that God teaches us by example to take responsibility even for unintended errors, to admit our mistakes and do what we can to rectify them. A second moral to this story is that while hierarchy is sometimes necessary, it must be balanced by an egalitarian impulse. The sun is greater than the moon, but the moon plays an essential role. God may be greater than the entire universe, and yet God asks humanity to address the imperfections of creation. Each player in the cosmos has a dignified and important function.

So too, in educational settings, our goal is not to be perfect, but to seek opportunities for intellectual, spiritual and moral growth. To achieve this goal, we must respect and dignify each learner, from the youngest to the oldest, and to view their role as essential. If we make an error, then we should acknowledge it and seek to do better. If we notice that a member of our community feels left out or belittled, it is our role — all of us — to lift them up with warmth and appreciation. This is the character of a humble, kind, and holy community, and this is the GOA way. 

This model of humility and self-improvement is also important on the national level. As the United States prepares to celebrate our independence this Sunday, we recall the idealism of our American ancestors who sought, in the preamble to the Constitution, to form “a more perfect union.” Or as the poet Katharine Lee Bates wrote in her famous poem America the Beautiful, “America! America! God mend thine every flaw. Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law!” No country is perfect, but one which establishes just laws and takes effective action to address its flaws is truly blessed.