Parashat Shemini describes the events that occurred on the eighth and final day of the Mishkan’s inauguration, when Aharon and his sons officiated as kohanim for the first time. God commanded that special sacrifices be brought in honor of the event – a sin-offering and burnt-offering brought by Aharon himself, and then other sacrifices brought by Benei Yisrael. After the animals were prepared, Moshe instructed Aharon, “Approach the altar and perform your sin-offering and your burnt-offering, and atone for yourself and for the nation, and perform the nation’s sacrifice and atone for them, as the Lord has commanded” (9:7). Curiously, Aharon’s sacrifice is described as serving the purpose of atoning for both him and the entire nation, despite the fact that the nation brought its own sacrifice, separate and apart from Aharon’s. Why did the nation require its own sacrifice if it earned atonement through Aharon’s offering?
This question was addressed by the Tosafists, in Da’at Zekeinim, where they suggest a different reading of the verse. The Tosafists explain Moshe’s instruction to Aharon to mean that Aharon should bring his sacrifice so he can earn atonement and thereby be eligible to earn atonement for the people by offering their sacrifice on their behalf. Moshe was explaining to Aharon that he could not begin officiating in the role of kohen, and representing the people before the Almighty to beseech Him on their behalf, until he first atones for himself.
This explanation reminds us of the need to first acknowledge and work to correct our own faults before we can try to influence and inspire others. If we want to make a meaningful impact upon people, and raise their standards of behavior and religious devotion, the first step is to “atone” for ourselves, to honestly introspect and invest the effort needed to raise our own standards. It might be tempting, for many people, to rush right into the work of trying to influence and inspire without undergoing the grueling process of sincere introspection and self-growth. Working to build ourselves is difficult and humbling, whereas working to build others is, very often, exciting and gratifying. But we must ensure not to skip the critical first step of self-improvement, and not to neglect our own flaws and shortcomings before assuming the role of trying to address the flaws and shortcoming of others.