I became convinced two disputes are related. I am not 100% sure of the nature of the relationship, but as it’s related to parashas Ki Sisa, I want to post what I have so far while it’s still this week’s parashah.
Machloqes #1: Do kohanim serve as sheluchei didan (our messengers), representing us in our service of the Creator? Or are they sheluchei diShmaya (messengers of [the One in] heaven), a conduit of His Message to the Jewish People?
This question is posed on Nedarim 35b. They raise a pragmatic difference. If a Jew swears off getting benefit from a given kohein, can the kohein offer his qorban for him? If the kohein is acting on the person’s behalf in giving the qorban, then this assistance would violate the oath. But if the kohein is acting on Hashem’s behalf in receiving the qorban, then he could perform this service. The discussion goes on for over a page, but without resolution.
Machloqes #2: This section of the Torah is understood two ways. The Ramban assumes the narrative is in chronological order. We receive the Torah, the laws of parshios Mishpatim, Terumah, and Tetzaveh at Har Sinai, and then after those laws but Moshe had not yet descended from the mountain, we make the Eigel haZahav (the Golden Calf).
Rashi writes that the sin actually occurred before Terumah and Tetzaveh, that we were commanded to build the Mishkan (Tabernacle), uniforms for the kohanim etc… as a consequence of the sin. This is why the kohanim and leviim, the people who fought against the sin, are the ones chosen for service. Similarly, Chur dies resisting the masses’ pressing him into service to make the Eigel, and his son Betzalel is in charge of the Mishkan. Then there is the heavy use of gold, the bull — an adult calf — offered by Aharon, who does choose to make the Eigel rather than add his own death to their list of sins, show a process of atonement for the sin. The order of the text was thematic, not chronological.
The Overlap: The Eigel was intended as a replacement for Moshe, who wasn’t descending when they expected him to.
וַיַּרְא הָעָם כִּי בֹשֵׁשׁ מֹשֶׁה לָרֶדֶת מִן הָהָר, וַיִּקָּהֵל הָעָם עַל אַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו: קוּם עֲשֵׂה לָנוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר יֵלְכוּ לְפָנֵינוּ, כִּי זֶה מֹשֶׁה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לֹא יָדַעְנוּ מֶה הָיָה לוֹ.
And the nation saw that Moshe delayed in coming down from the mountain, and the nation gathered against Aharon and said to him, “Get up and make for us gods who will go before us; for this man Moshe who took us out of the land of Egypt — we don’t know what happened to him.”
— Shemos 32:1
Moshe is described as a sheliach diShamaya to His People, not our messenger. In Shemos ch. 4, when Hashem appoints Moshe at the Burning Bush, He says “va’eshlachakha el Par’oh — and I will send you to Par’oh” (v. 10), “vezeh lekha ha’os ki Anokhi shelachtikha — and will be for you a sign that I am sending you” (v. 12) Moshe asks “ve’amari lahem, ‘E-lokei avoseikhem shelachani aleikhem — and when I say to them ‘the G-d of your ancestors sent me to you” they will ask for Your Name. (v. 13) And Hashem answers Moshe that he tell them, “This is what you should tell the Benei Yisrael, E-hyeh sent me to you.” (v. 14)
So, if the people were already told that there would be a Mishkan and kohanim before feeling they had to make the Eigel to fill the vacuum they thought was left by Moshe, then they had to believe that Moshe’s role was inherently different than that the kohanim would fill.
So, if they correctly understood that Moshe was Hashem’s messenger, then they clearly thought that kohanim were sheluchei didan.
But there is strong reason to believe that this it was exactly their error — they did not correctly understand the role of Moshe, and thought he was their messenger. After all, some kind of misunderstanding the role of Moshe had to underlie the idea that a teacher could be replaced by a Golden Calf. And after all, we already saw that the Eigel was in response to an appeal to “make for us gods to go before us.” Which would imply that they understood the kohanim as sheluchei deShmaya.
On the other hand, according to Rashi’s model that the Mishkan came after the Eigel and atones for it, then the two rules would have to be the same. But unlike in the Ramban’s case, where all we can deduce is how people would panic based on what they think is going on, here what is most relevant is how Hashem saw their actions, and how their sin impacted existence metaphysically.
Here two there are two possibilities:
The first would say that according to Rashi, since Moshe was a sheleiach diShmaya, the Eigel impinged on that level, and the Mishkan and kohanim would have to be a repair on the same level as well. And so, it would seem to me that the kohanim would have to be sheluchei diShmaya.
The other possibility (paralleling the second possible understanding in the Ramban) is that their whole sin was in misunderstanding Moshe’s role. And so even though their actions belied the role of Hashem’s messenger, they mistakenly thought their own messenger needed replacing, and they sinned in how to appoint their sheliach didan. And so Hashem shows them the right way to do it, by showing us how to make the kohanim into sheluchei didan.
So, two disputes, and all four combinations are possible. But the reasoning in each of the four cases involves both:
| ||Kohanim as Sheluchei Didan||Kohanim as Sheluchei DiShmaya|
|Ramban: Historical Sequence||Moshe is correctly seen as Hashem’s messenger, and so even with kohanim they feel a need to place him.||Their whole error was that they thought Moshe was their messenger, so finding out Hashem was appointing His own messenger didn’t help their panic|
|Rashi: Mishkan as Atonement||Moshe is mistakenly seen as sheliach didan, which Hashem corrected by teaching us about the Mishkan and kohanim. and constructively channeling that need.|| The Benei Yisrael demonstrate their panic about Hashem’s messenger being dead by making an idol to invest with His replacement. Therefore Hashem offers atonement through His true shelichim, the kohanim.|
I explored the link between the eigel and the keruvim (via the Egptian cult of Apis the bull-god, the religion Yerav’am established for the Northern Kingdom, and the Chaldean bull-god Kirub, as well as the bull or keruv face on the chayos in Yechezqel’s vision) a few years back in “Angels and Idols“.