Before commencing the regular service in the Mishkan, Aharon and Bnei Yisrael were commanded to offer special korbanot. Aharon was to bring a calf as a chatat (sin offering), and Bnei Yisrael were to bring a goat for a chatat and a calf and a sheep as an olah (burnt offering) (Vayikra 9:1-3). The Sifra (Shemini 1:3) relates that Moshe told Aharon that even though Aharon was forgiven for the sin of the Golden Calf, he still needed atonement for it. Yet, Moshe pointed out, Bnei Yisrael needed more atonement than Aharon did because not only did they need atonement for their involvement in the Golden Calf but also for the sale of Yosef, in which most of the forefathers of Bnei Yisrael were involved. Since the sale involved the slaughter of a goat (to cover up the disappearance of Yosef, making their father believe that Yosef was killed by a wild beast), they had to bring a goat as a chatat.
(One can discuss how the midrash reads the pasuk regarding the status of Bnei Yisrael’s calf offering – whether it was an olah or a chatat – and thus in which way it served as an atonement. It is also interesting to note that this is the only appearance of the phrase "egel ben bakar" in the Torah, while we find many appearances of "par ben bakar.")
Many quills have been broken in trying to explain the connection between the two sins for which Bnei Yisrael needed atonement – the sale of Yosef and the Golden Calf – two events that were separated by several generations and were obviously perpetrated by different people. We will discuss this week the Malbim’s explanation, which appears in his commentary on the aforementioned Sifra.
The Malbim explains that in the case of each of these sins, Bnei Yisrael had a claim that minimized their guilt and perhaps could have had them exonerated from the harshest punishments. Regarding the sale of Yosef, the brothers could have claimed that the end result of their action must be considered. Due to their sale of Yosef, Yosef eventually emerged as a powerful leader, and he also was able to save Bnei Yisrael by providing for them food and security during a grave time of famine and danger.
Regarding the sin of the Golden Calf, they could have made the opposite claim. Although the idol worship that resulted from the creation of the Calf was horrible, their intention was just to do something which would cause the Divine Presence to dwell among them. Thus, while misguided, their actions were in the realm of an attempt at service of Hashem.
Before beginning to serve Hashem, properly this time, Bnei Yisrael had to cover themselves. Whether the main factor is the result or it is the intention, they were deserving of full punishment and in need of atonement for at least one of the sins and, to an extent, for both. This is why Bnei Yisrael’s need for atonement was so pronounced. We also should point out that since the goat preceded the calf, the first thing for which they required atonement was for the sin between man and his fellow man. Only afterward did they seek atonement for the sin between man and his Maker.