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Torah Attitude: Parashas Beha'aloscha: To copy or not to copy
The kindling of the lights of the Menorah by Aaron was greater than the offerings of the twelve leaders. Why did Aaron not copy the other leaders in bringing his own offering on behalf of the tribe of Levi? Since Hevel merely copied the conduct of his brother, this was not a truthful deed to protect him from evil. A sinner cannot bribe G'd by bringing offerings or contributions to charity. Aaron was worried whether there was some flaw with him personally or with the tribe of Levi. Empty customs and traditions have no lasting value. Every year on Shavuous we reaffirm our acceptance of the Torah and its commandments. The more we understand the background and reasons for our observance, the more truthful and complete will be our observance of the commandments.
Light the Menorah
In the beginning of this week's Torah portion, G'd commands Moses to tell Aaron to kindle the lights of the Menorah. Rashi brings that the Midrash Tanchuma asks why this portion comes immediately after the offerings of the leaders of the twelve tribes. The Midrash answers that Aaron was distressed that every tribe represented by its leader had participated in the dedication of the Tabernacle with special offerings, while Aaron and the tribe of Levi had not brought any offerings. G'd comforted Aaron saying that his participation in the service of the Tabernacle by kindling the lights of the Menorah was greater than the offerings of the twelve leaders.
Aaron did not copy
We have just celebrated Shavuous commemorating the revelation at Mount Sinai. At that occasion the Jews exclaimed "we will do and we will listen" (Shemos 24:7). The commentaries explain that the unusual order of this exclamation means "we will do even if we do not understand why, and later we will study and analyze to learn the reasons and rationale of the mitzvot to the best of our ability." With this in mind, one may ask why did Aaron not copy the other leaders in bringing his own offering on behalf of the tribe of Levi? Although our sages explain that the reason why the Torah describes in great detail the identical offerings of each tribe was due to the fact that each leader had his own purpose in bringing the offering. No doubt no one would have stopped Aaron from bringing one as well.
Cain and Hevel
We can answer why Aaron did not copy the other leaders by analyzing an earlier occasion that incidentally also regards offerings. When Cain and Hevel brought their offerings and G'd accepted only Hevel's offering, Cain reacted by killing Hevel (see Bereishis 4:3-8). The Maharal asks why the mitzvah of bringing an offering did not protect Hevel from any evil? As it says, (Koheles 8:5) "Someone who keeps a mitzvah will not know of any evil." The Maharal answers that Hevel had not initiated the offering on his own; rather, when he saw Cain bringing his offering, he decided to copy his brother. Therefore, since Hevel merely copied the conduct of his brother, this was lacking in truthfulness and therefore was not sufficient to protect him from evil.
Not accept bribe
It seems strange that G'd accepted the offering of Hevel rather than the one brought by Cain as he merely copied his brother. Explains the Maharal that Cain thought he could appease G'd with his offering despite his evil ways. However, it says (Devarim 10:17): "For G'd … does not show favour and does not accept a bribe". Even the most elaborate offering will be of no help as it says, (Proverbs 21:27) "The offering of the wicked is an abomination." As the commentaries explain, a sinner cannot bribe G'd by bringing offerings or contributions to charity. Rather, G'd will reward for the good deed and still punish for the sin. On the other hand, despite the lack of truthfulness of his offering by copying his brother, Hevel's offering was accepted by G'd because he was a righteous person. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the actual deed was somewhat flawed and could not protect him from his brother's evil deed.
We can now understand why Aaron would not copy the other leaders and bring an offering of his own. The real cause of Aaron's distress was that he did not have in mind to bring an offering on this specific occasion. If the twelve other leaders had thought to bring the offering, Aaron was worried whether the reason that he had not thought of it was the result of some flaw with him personally or with the tribe of Levi. G'd comforted Aaron by assuring him that the reason it did not come to his mind to bring the offering was because this was not part of his purpose in life. He had to kindle the Menorah which was much greater than the offerings brought by the other leaders.
Empty customs and traditions
It is significant to take note that both the offerings of Cain and Hevel as well as the offerings of the leaders of the tribes were not commanded by G'd. These were voluntary offerings brought by these individuals. Since the revelation at Mount Sinai, when G'd gave us the Torah and 613 commandments, we are obligated to fulfill every commandment applicable at any time. It is not open for anyone to say: "I do not want to just copy other and perform a commandment for which I do not know or understand the reason." On the other hand, one should not perform a mitzvah just because that is what everybody does or because that is the "in thing" to do in a particular society or community. We fulfill the mitzvot because G'd commanded us to do so. As the Prophet Isaiah (29:13) complains in the name of G'd: "For this nation just come near to Me and honour Me with their mouths and lips but their hearts are far away from Me. And the 'fear' of Me is only as if instructed by man." Empty customs and traditions have no lasting value and cannot be transmitted from generation to generation. When we said "we will do and we will listen" the Jewish people collectively undertook to study to try to understand the reasons behind the commandments, not as a condition for fulfilling them but to enhance our performance of them. As the Rambam says in the end of the Laws of Meiloh: "It is proper for every person to analyze the laws of the Holy Torah to try to understand the rationale to the best of their ability."
Reaffirm our acceptance
Every year on Shavuous we reaffirm our acceptance of the Torah and its commandments. This is a renewal of our commitment both to fulfill the commandments and to broaden and deepen our understanding of them. The more we understand the background and reasons for our observance, the more truthful and complete will be our observance of the commandments. We will be able not to tell our children what to do, but also to create the atmosphere of understanding why we are doing it. Only in this way can we secure and guarantee Jewish continuity and transmit to future generations what we originally received at Mount Sinai.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network