A few weeks ago, we learned in Parshat Shemini that all the preparations have been finalized for activating the Mishkan, the dwelling place for Hashem. Construction of the Mishkan and all of its fittings have been completed. Aaron and his sons have undergone a seven day investiture process under the direction and tutelage of Moshe Rabbeinu, who has been acting in the capacity of the Kohen Gadol. We are about ready to come on line; the Holy of Holies will be filled with Hashem's presence, and we are very excited.
We are standing before Aaron, outside of the Mishkan.
He places the oleh, sin and peace offerings onto the Altar. These offerings are atonements for himself and for the entire people. Aaron then addresses us with the famous Priestly Blessing: יְבָרֶכְךָ יהוה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ, “May the LORD bless you and guard you”… The switch is thrown
But nothing happens. Aaron and Moshe go into the Mishkan and confer ; they both emerge, and standing outside, bless the people. The Mishkan is activated; the presence of Hashem in the form of a cloud, not only fills the Holy of Holies, but the entire Mishkan itself. It is as if the sanctity of the Holy of Holies has been bestowed on the entire Mishkan. We are in awe.
An all consuming fire swoops down from up above and the offerings go up in smoke, Leviticus 9:24 -
“And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fats upon the altar, and all the people saw, sang praises, and fell upon their faces”.
וַתֵּ֤צֵא אֵשׁ֙ מִלִּפְנֵ֣י יְהֹוָ֔ה וַתֹּ֨אכַל֙ עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֔חַ אֶת־הָֽעֹלָ֖ה וְאֶת־הַֽחֲלָבִ֑ים וַיַּ֤רְא כָּל־הָעָם֙ וַיָּרֹ֔נּוּ וַיִּפְּל֖וּ עַל־פְּנֵיהֶֽם
A key word for me is וַתֹּ֨אכַל֙, translated as “consumed”, and in the anthropomorphic sense of things could just as well have been translated as “eaten”. In the case when the Kohenim are given their share of the offerings, the same verb, “אכַל֙” is used, and they consume their portion by eating it.
While these events are taking place, unbeknownst to Aaron and Moshe, two of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Avihu, for whatever reason have entered the Mishkan's courtyard. Bear in mind, no one enters the Holy of Holies, except the High Priest, once a year at Yom Kippur. In this instance with the presence of Hashem filling the Mishkan in its entirety, the Mishkan is like the Holy of Holies. Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The lads are וַתֹּ֣אכַל, consumed, in a holy conflagration. It is as if they have become a burnt offering or a sin offering; all offering have an aspect of atonement to Hashem.
The concept of partaking of an offering, whether it be the share allotted to the Priests for them to eat or that part of the offering that is consumed on the Altar, has been coopted and degraded by pagans and gentiles. This denigration of what was once part of the Temple sacrifice is termed by pagans and gentles as “sin eating”. According to Wikipedia, a sin-eater is a person who consumes a ritual meal in order to magically take on the sins of another person. Traditionally, the food was believed to absorb the sins of a recently deceased person, thus absolving that person's soul. Consequently, sin-eaters supposedly carried the sins of all people whose souls they "ate." The sin-eater of most renown is of course Jesus. He offered his life to atone or purify all of humanity of their sins.
Wikapedia continues: The sin-eater was regarded as a thing unclean. He was cut off from all social contact with his neighbors because of the life he had chosen. Sin-eaters usually lived in remote places. Only when a death took place did people seek him out. And when his purpose was accomplished they burned the wooden bowl and platter from which he had eaten the food had been placed on the corpse for the sin-eater’s consumption.
Wikipedia (mostly) concludes: In Upper Bavaria sin-eating still survives: a corpse cake is placed on the breast of the dead and then eaten by the nearest relative, while in the Balkan peninsula a small bread image of the deceased is made and eaten by the survivors of the family. The Dutch doed-koecks or 'dead-cakes', marked with the initials of the deceased, was introduced into America in the 17th century. They were given to people attending funerals in colonial New York and Pennsylvania. Funeral biscuits and 'burial-cakes' which are still made in parts of rural England are almost certainly a relic of sin-eating.
Anthropologists speculate that the eating of a corpse cake evolved from a tradition of having a piece of the deceased itself…ugh.
If you want to experience the mood of medieval sin-eating as portrayed on TV, check this out:
Most of us may remember Rod Serling, the creator of the TV series “Twilight Zone”. Serling went on to be part of another TV series called “Night Gallery”. There is a creepy 1972 episode entitled “The Sins Of The Fathers” in which there is a famine in medieval Wales, forcing a terrified young Ian to feast on the sins of deceased Mr. Craighill:
Don’t watch it alone; watch it with a friend.
As for our atonement, let’s wait until Yom Kippur.