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Parshas Shemini - Vol. 11, Issue 26
Compiled by Oizer Alport
In the beginning of Parshas Shemini, Moshe instructs Aharon to go to the Altar and bring offerings to effect atonement for himself and the Jewish people. Rashi writes that Moshe had to tell Aharon to approach the Altar because he sensed that Aharon was uncomfortable doing so due to his role in making the Golden Calf, to which Moshe responded, "Why are you embarrassed? It is for this reason that you were selected as Kohen Gadol." Rav Itzele Volozhiner explains that Moshe was telling him that the very fact that he felt unworthy of the job demonstrated a sense of humility which was a necessary prerequisite for the position, and was itself the greatest proof that Aharon was qualified and deserving.
Along these lines, when Hashem appeared to Moshe at the burning bush to appoint him to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt, Moshe repeatedly demurred, asking (Shemos 3:11), "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should take the Jewish people out of Egypt?" Hashem responded (3:12), "I will be with you, and this is the sign that I sent you." Rashi explains that the miraculous sight of the burning bush that was not consumed was the sign to which Hashem was referring. However, the Chasam Sofer explains that Hashem's words can also be interpreted as saying that the fact that Moshe humbly viewed himself as unfit for the role was itself the sign proving why he was chosen. Hashem wants leaders who think of themselves as inherently unworthy of the position, and who only accept the responsibility because of Hashem's insistence.
More recently, when the position of Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem became available upon the death of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook in 1935, a delegation approached Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank to discuss the requirements and obligations of the position. After they finished their presentation, Rav Tzvi Pesach replied, "I already know all of the struggles and challenges of the community. Why are you coming to tell me all of this?" They responded that they wanted him to accept the job (which he did), and just as Moshe and Aharon before him, his humble attitude of unworthiness was itself the greatest proof of his suitability.
Rav Yissocher Frand notes that this concept stands in stark contrast to the values of the society in which we live. In the midst of this hard-fought election season, not once have we heard a candidate declare, "I don't deserve to be President. I'm not up to the task and can't fathom why anybody would choose me." Instead, every single candidate pronounces that he or she is the most worthy person in the entire country and is uniquely capable of solving all of America's woes. This attitude is quite different than that of our modest and unassuming Jewish leaders, who are genuinely uncomfortable serving in roles for which they view themselves as completely unworthy, and which they paradoxically perform far better than their overconfident political counterparts.
Parshas Tzav concluded by describing the service that Moshe performed for seven days to inaugurate the Mishkan. Parshas Shemini begins with the climax of this period, which was reached on the eighth day, at which time Aharon and his sons were consecrated to serve as Kohanim in the Mishkan. Tragically, just at the peak of the joy of the inauguration ritual, Aharon's two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, performed a service in the Mishkan which they weren't commanded to do, and they paid for it with their lives.
Reacting to this terrible loss, Rashi writes that Moshe told Aharon that he knew that the Mishkan would be sanctified through the death of somebody close to Hashem, but he assumed that it would be either himself or Aharon. In light of what transpired, Moshe said that he now recognized that Nadav and Avihu were even greater than them. This comment is difficult to understand. How could Moshe, whom the Torah testifies (Bamidbar 12:3) was the most humble man to ever walk the earth, be so presumptuous as to assume that he was the most beloved by Hashem in his entire generation?
Rav Yechezkel Abramsky was once called upon to testify in a secular court in England. In order to establish his credentials as an expert witness, he was asked whether he was the most senior Rabbi and foremost authority on Jewish law in the entire British Empire, to which he replied in the affirmative. The astonished judge asked him how to resolve his seemingly arrogant response with the Jewish trait of humility. Rav Abramsky answered back, "What can I do? I'm under oath."
In light of this humorous story, Rav Leib Chasman explains that this question is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of humility. People are accustomed to thinking of a humble person as one who views himself as low and unworthy. The Torah, however, doesn't equate humility with low self-esteem. On the contrary, a humble person may be well aware of his tremendous talents and skills. Nevertheless, he doesn't view himself as worthy of praise and respect for them. In his humility, he attributes his talents to Divine gifts. Similarly, Moshe was well aware of his lofty spiritual status and naturally assumed that Hashem would choose to take him to consecrate the Mishkan, yet this in no way detracted from his humility.
This understanding of genuine humility can be contrasted with the misguided demonstration of modesty in the following amusing story. There was once a yeshiva in Europe which emphasized to its students the importance of acquiring the trait of humility and minimizing one's view of his worth and value. To that end, there were students who would repeat to themselves over and over the Yiddish expression, "Ich bin a gornisht" - I am a nothing - in an attempt to internalize this understanding.
One day a new student arrived in the yeshiva. Upon entering the Beis Medrash, he encountered a number of students sitting and repeating to themselves this phrase. Assuming that this was the practice of the yeshiva and wanting to fit in, the new student sat down and joined them, repeating loudly and with great fervor this expression. One of the older students approached him and rebuked him, "You just arrived here. Who are you to be a gornisht!?" Suffice it to say that although we have learned that a person should strive toward a humble and modest view of himself, this isn't the "humility" that the Torah had in mind.
The Rambam rules (Hilchos Deios 6:7) that a person who sees his friend transgressing or engaged in inappropriate behavior is required to rebuke him and explain to him the error of his ways. The Rambam adds that this must be done in a soft voice and gentle manner, making it clear that the criticism emanates solely from a pure desire to assist and benefit his friend. In fact, Rav Chaim Volozhiner maintains that a person who is only able to deliver rebuke in an angry, condescending manner is exempt from this mitzvah based on the requirement of the Rambam.
A beautiful hint to this concept is found in our verses. The Torah tells us explicitly that Moshe was angry at what he perceived to be an incorrect judgment on the part of Aharon and his sons. Nevertheless, the first letters of the words of his actual criticism spell out malei ahava - full of love - hinting that even as Moshe carried out what he perceived to be his Divine obligation to protest their actions, he did so in a way which demonstrated his love for them and his pure motivations.
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Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):
1) Although Nadav and Avihu sinned by bringing an alien fire that Hashem had not commanded them to bring (10:1), Hashem normally gives a person time to do teshuvah (repent). Why were they punished so severely with immediate death instead of being given an opportunity to repent their sin? (HaAmek Davar, Birkas Peretz, Ayeles HaShachar)
2) Rashi writes (Devorim 9:20) that Nadav and Avihu died as a punishment to Aharon for his role in the sin of the golden calf. How can this be reconciled with the verse that says (10:1) that they died as a punishment for their own sin in offering a foreign fire on the Altar? (Taam V'Daas 16:1)
3) The Torah permits (11:3) the consumption of any land animal that chews its cud and has split hooves. Do these signs or their absence cause the permissibility or prohibition of consuming an animal, or are they simply signs indicating whether a species is kosher? (Moreh Nevuchim 3:48, Kovetz Shemuos Chullin 27, Lev Aryeh Chullin 65b, Ayeles HaShachar 11:2, M'rafsin Igri)
4) Parshas Shemini concludes (11:44-47) by stressing the importance of keeping the laws of kosher food in order to become holy and pure. If a person is required to consume non-kosher food for the sake of his health, does it still cause him spiritual impurity? (Toras Chaim, Shu"t Chasam Sofer Orach Chaim 1:83, Meshech Chochmah Devorim 6:11, Orchos Yosher 13, Derech Sicha)
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