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Torah Attitude: Parashas Beha’aloscha: Intentions, inventions and following G’d’s instructions
Aaron was praised for doing exactly as G’d had instructed Moses. The Levites were praised as they accepted to receive the purification in accordance with the instructions of G’d. If one would have fixed a small measure of fruit honey into the incense, it would have brought out an unbelievably powerful scent. Nadav and Avihu had the best of intentions but erred by bringing an offering that they had not been commanded to bring. G’d commanded to put two Cherubs on the Holy Ark. Had they been constructed in any way other than exactly how G’d instructed, it would be considered as producing idols. We learn from Adam and Eve’s mistake that G’d is not asking us to invent new ways how to please Him. Anyone who experiments by using an invention in ways other than advised in the manual risks to destroy the invention and harm himself and others. Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik tearfully told a convened meeting of the greatest rabbis of his decision to close the Yeshiva. Rabbis Kotler and Teitelbaum had tremendous success to transplant and continue the Jewish lifestyles and values as past down from previous generations onto American soil. There are some feminist groups who would like to perform commandments that do not apply to them in order to satisfy their personal beliefs and outlook. Rather than making compromises, Torah leaders must have the courage to stand up and instruct their congregations and followers to continue in the ways of the Torah. “Nullify your will before His will.” Bar Kappara taught that when the Torah prohibits it, not even the best intention can change the formula.
In the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, G’d tells Moses to instruct Aaron how to kindle the Menorah. The Torah continues and says, (Bamidbar 8:3) “And Aaron did so … as G’d had commanded Moses.” Rashi quotes our sages in the Sifri (paragraph 60) who explain that this verse comes to praise Aaron for doing exactly as G’d had instructed Moses. This seems strange. G’d had told Moses that Aaron was chosen to be the one privileged to kindle the light of the Menorah every day. Even a person of less integrity and stature than Aaron would be more than happy to follow G’d’s instructions to the smallest details. So what is the nature of the praise that the Torah bestows upon Aaron?
Shaving the Levites
Later in this week’s portion (ibid 20-22) we read about the inauguration of the Levites. They went through a special purification to prepare them for their service in the Sanctuary. This concludes with the Torah pointing out that Moses, Aaron and the whole congregation prepared the Levites as G’d commanded. Again, Rashi quotes from our sages that this comes to teach us that everybody did their part according to the instructions of G’d. In this case we can well understand the praise of the Levites as they accepted to receive the purification in accordance with the instructions of G’d. This purification included shaving off any hair on their entire body. Obviously, there was a deeper significance of this shaving, but to the individual Levite it was not flattering to his appearance. The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 10:3) relates how Korach’s wife used this as an excuse to entice her husband to revolt against Moses. But why did the rest of the Jewish people deserve praise for their part in the inauguration?
A similar question arises in connection with the spices mixed into the incense brought daily in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple. Many people have the custom to quote certain paragraphs from the Torah and the Talmud every morning in their prayers dealing with the offerings brought in the Sanctuary. In one of these quotations Bar Kappara teaches that if one would have mixed a small measure of fruit honey into the incense, it would have brought out an unbelievably powerful scent. Says Bar Kappara, “So why did they not mix fruit honey into it? Because the Torah (Vayikra 2:11) said, ‘For all leaven and all fruit honey, you shall not burn as a fire-offering to G’d.’” Here again, what is Bar Kappara teaching us? Obviously it would not come into question to put fruit honey into the incense if there is an express commandment not to mix it in. So what is the significance for Bar Kappara to mention something that we are not doing what we are prohibited to do?
Nadav and Avihu
We may be able to answer these questions by analyzing what happened at the inauguration of the Tabernacle to the two sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu. In the beginning of Parashas Shemini (Vayikra 10:1-7) the Torah relates how Nadav and Avihu took their fire pans with incense and brought an alien fire that G’d had not commanded. They were immediately punished as a Heavenly fire came down and consumed their souls and they died on the spot. These two righteous sons of Aaron had the best of intentions but erred by bringing an offering that they had not been commanded to bring. They wanted to display their great love for G’d by bringing an offering that they themselves had invented. But as our sages explain, when G’d commands us what to do there is great significance in every detail of the commandment. Therefore, the slightest variation from G’d’s instructions can have very dire consequences.
We find a case in point by the two Cherubs that G’d commanded to put on the Holy Ark. Had they been constructed in any way other than exactly how G’d instructed, it would be considered as producing idols. Even two exact replicas placed in the Tabernacle in addition to the two commanded by G’d, or placed in a synagogue, would be considered as producing idols (see Rashi Shemos 20:20).
Adam and Eve
Even when Adam and Eve decided to eat from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (the Arizal) explains that they had good intentions. Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler elaborates on this and explains that they reasoned that it is not so great to serve G’d and do his biddings when one only knows “good”. They realized that by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil they would have the choice to do evil as well as good. They therefore decided that it would be right to eat the fruit of the tree. In this was they would serve G’d and do what is good after choosing between good and evil. However, we learn from Adam and Eve’s mistake that G’d is not asking us to invent new ways how to please Him. On the contrary, G’d, Who created us, gave us exact instructions on what to do and what not to do, and nothing can be more “pleasing” than following those instructions.
Inventor knows best
Throughout the generations many well-meaning individuals have risen to try to adapt Judaism to the time in which they lived. In retrospect, we see the disaster of this approach. The Divine laws of the Torah are eternal, as only the Creator and Eternal Master of the universe could formulate. Just like an inventor knows better than others how to use his invention, so too G’d, who created the world, knows what is good and beneficial and what is not. Anyone who experiments by using an invention in ways other than advised in the official manual risks to destroy the invention and harm himself and others. So too it has been proven time and again that anyone who tries to alter G’d’s manual does more harm than good. These Torah alterations come in many forms and variations, but the long term results are always the same. Any dilution or compromises of the laws of the Torah have resulted in the loss of many precious Jewish souls to assimilation and intermarriage.
In 1892 when the Russian government tried to force the introduction of secular studies into the famous Volozhiner Yeshiva, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, known as the Bais Halevy, made a tough decision. The venerated sage tearfully told a convened meeting of the greatest rabbis of the time of his decision to close the Yeshiva. He explained that although the rabbis have a responsibility to pass on the Torah to the next generation, this responsibility only applies if they can pass it on in the same fashion as they had received it. If they were not able to do so, G’d, Who originally gave us the Torah, would come and find a way to pass it on to the next generation. When the Chofetz Chaim later related this decision, he added that had the Yeshiva allowed the Russian Ministry of Education to gain a foothold in the curriculum of the Yeshiva, it would have been a continuous battle. Eventually, said the Chofetz Chaim, the Yeshiva would have been forced to spend most of the day learning secular studies. Being that the Volozhiner Yeshiva was the only yeshiva in Russia at the time, the consequences would have been catastrophic. Because of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s firmness not to let any foreign influence into the Yeshiva without any compromise, the Torah, just like flowing water, found many new avenues and a host of yeshivot sprung up in Eastern Europe. These yeshivot were able, unhindered, to disseminate the Torah to a new generation of students.
Rabbis Kotler and Teitelbaum
Similarly, when Rabbi Aaron Kotler came to the North America and founded his yeshiva in Lakewood, he was adamant to continue in the traditions of the great Lithuanian yeshivot of pre-war Europe. At the same time, the great Chassidic leader Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe, re-established his congregation in Williamsburg, New York, without changing any of the old Chasidic customs. These two giants had tremendous success to transplant and continue the Jewish lifestyles and values as past down from previous generations onto American soil. These bastions of Torah and awe of G’d continue to grow and flourish till this very day. On the other hand, the various liberal movements and organizations who tried to alter the Jewish lifestyles and values have failed to stem the tide of assimilation and intermarriage.
Even within the Orthodox community, we sometimes find trends that try to dilute the laws of the Torah and adapt them to modern times. There are some feminist groups who would like to perform commandments that do not apply to women in order to satisfy their personal beliefs and outlook. Throughout the generations there were pious and righteous women who quietly fulfilled many commandments beyond their obligations. That is very different than today’s organizations that demand “equality” in the prayer service and in fulfilling the commandments. If these women would only accept and understand their holy obligations they would feel a satisfaction and self-fulfillment beyond anything they achieve by demanding equality. They are the cornerstone of every Jewish household and the main educators of every Jewish child. In this way they carry a tremendous responsibility for Jewish continuity to ensure that the next generation will continue as proud educated Jews.
When modern rabbis try to appeal to the masses, making compromises such as changing the way Bris Milah has been preformed throughout the centuries, little do they realize how dangerous a route they are embarking on. As the Chofetz Chaim used to say, even with the best intentions one compromise will only lead to further and further diluting of the Torah until it is no longer recognizable. Rather than making compromises, Torah leaders must have the courage to stand up and instruct their congregations and followers to continue in the ways of the Torah.
Nullify your will
The Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 2:4) says, “Nullify your will before His will.” This is the difference between the ones who follow G’d’s will without making any changes and the ones who alter G’d’s instructions to suit their own will.
Cannot change the formula
When Aaron was appointed to kindle the light of the Menorah, he had absolutely no personal interest or gain in mind. All he wanted to do was to fulfill the will of G’d. Therefore, he did not even entertain the thought of making any changes to G’d’s command. Similarly, at the inauguration of the Levites both the Levites and the rest of the Jewish people had only one thing in mind: to follow G’d’s instructions exactly as commanded. This was also the case when the Kohanim prepared the mixture of the incense. Their sole intention was to do as prescribed in the Torah, even though mixing fruit honey into the incense seemed to produce a much better product. Based on this Bar Kappara taught that when the Torah prohibits something, even the best intention cannot change the formula. We must always bear in mind that our Creator provided us with an exact manual how to conduct every detail of our lives. The only way we will succeed is by nullifying our will for His will.
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