In Parashat Tzav, we read about the anointing of Aharon’s sons as Kohanim and the inauguration of the newly completed Mishkan. When describing the inauguration of the Mishkan, the Torah states, “VaYechatei Et HaMizbei’ach, VeEt HaDam Yatzak El Yesod HaMizbei’ach, VaYekadesheihu Lechapeir Alav,” “And he purified the altar, and poured out the remaining blood at the base of the altar, and sanctified it, to make atonement for it” (Vayikra 8:15). Rashi (ad loc. s.v. VaYechatei Et HaMizbei’ach and Lechapeir Alav) answers two potential questions. First, if the Mishkan was brand new, why did it need to be purified – what part was impure that required purification? Secondly, what happened to the Mishkan that, at its inauguration, Moshe had to purify it, sanctify it, and provide atonement? The process of inaugurating the Mishkan is perplexing, and it appears that crucial context is missing.
Rashi adds in the missing context and explains that when the Torah writes that “he purified the altar,” the Pasuk means that Moshe purified the altar to let it enter into a state of holiness. Rashi further explains that “to make atonement for it” does not refer to atonement for past transgressions, but rather it means that Moshe sanctified the altar so that future Korbanot brought as atonements could be brought on the Mizbei’ach (such as Korbanei Chatat or Olah).
Ramban is also perplexed by the wording of the Pasuk, but he suggests an alternative approach. Ramban (ad loc. VaYechatei Et HaMizbei’ach) quotes the Sifra as saying that Moshe actually brought a Korban for atonement. To understand why Moshe was bringing a Korban, one must look back at the building of the Mishkan. When the construction of the Mishkan began, everyone in the camp was asked to contribute to the building of the Mishkan. While most contributed out of their own volition, there were some who were pressured into contributing and therefore contributed not out of their desire to do so.
While this may have been unfortunate, this sin does not seem so terrible that Moshe Rabbeinu would have to atone for it. To understand this, we need to explore what happened when the donations to the Mishkan were given. The reason that Moshe had to atone was that the money given by those people who were pressured to do so was considered stolen, as it was not given willingly. While this is a fine answer, it still does not explain why money donated under pressure and considered stolen would require Moshe to bring atonement for those who gave the stolen money. In Yeshayahu (61:8), we find the answer: “Ki Ani Hashem Oheiv Mishpat Soneih Gazeil BeOlah,” “For I am Hashem, who loves justice, and hates theft in burnt-offering.” From this Pasuk, we see that Moshe is forced to bring an atonement since Hashem hates theft, and those donations that were given under pressure are considered stolen.
While there are many less ons that can be learned from this saga, the one that stands out is that Hashem wants us to serve Him out of our own desire, not out of someone else's. Hashem could have accepted the forced donations, since they were not really stolen, but as is evident from Yeshayahu, Hashem does not want “stolen” donations; therefore, Moshe was forced to bring atonement for them. We see that Hashem wants only the donations that were given out of love and desire to be close to Him, and not those given out of anguish. In the merits of Moshe and the Jews of his generation, may we be Zochim to have the courage to serve Hashem out of love and desire, and not out of fear.