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Torah Attitude: Parashas Beha'aloscha: To copy or not to copy

Summary

The kindling of the lights of the Menorah by Aaron was greater than the offerings of the twelve leaders. Why did Aaron not do as the other leaders and bring his own offering on behalf of the tribe of Levi? Since Hevel merely copied the conduct of his brother, this was not sufficient 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. On Shavuous we reaffirmed our acceptance of the Torah and its commandments. The more we understand the background and reasons for our observance, the more truthful and complete observance will be.

Light the Menorah

In the beginning of this week's parasha, G'd commands Moses to tell Aaron to kindle the lights of the Menorah. Rashi brings that the Midrash Tanchuma asks why this parasha 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 and said to him that his kindling the lights of the Menorah was greater than the offerings of the other twelve leaders.

Aaron did not do as the others

There seems to be an obvious question here. Why did Aaron not do as the other leaders and bring 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. Just recently we celebrated Shavuous commemorating the revelation at Mount Sinai. At that occasion the Jewish people 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 commandments (mitzvot) to the best of our ability." So even if Aaron, for whatever reason, did not understand why the leaders brought their offerings, he could still copy them and later look into the rationale for bringing these offerings.

Cain and Hevel

We may be able to 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, G'd accepted only Hevel's offering. Cain got very upset and killed Hevel (see Bereishis 4:3-8). The Maharal asks, why did the mitzvah of bringing an offering not protect Hevel? Does it not say, (Koheles 8:5) "Someone who observes 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 do the same. Since Hevel merely copied his brother, there was a lack in his observance and therefore it was not sufficient to protect him from evil.

Not accept bribe

This, however, needs clarification. Why did G'd accept the offering of Hevel rather than the one brought by Cain, if Hevel merely copied his brother? The Maharal explains 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. On the contrary, (Proverbs 21:27) "The offering of the wicked is an abomination", says King Solomon. The commentaries explain that a sinner cannot bribe G'd by bringing offerings or contributions to charity. G'd will reward for the good deed, but He will still punish for the sin. This is why G'd did not accept Cain's offering. On the other hand, although Hevel lacked somewhat in his offering, since he copied his brother, G'd accepted his offering because he was a righteous person. However, the fact remains that the actual deed was somewhat flawed and could not protect him from his brother.

Aaron worried

With this insight, we can understand why Aaron would not copy the other leaders and bring an offering of his own. The real cause of Aaron's distress was why did he not think of bringing an offering on this special occasion just like the other leaders. Aaron was worried that he had not thought of it due to some flaw with him personally or with the tribe of Levi. G'd therefore comforted Aaron and assured him that this was not part of his task. 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. Therefore, it was not appropriate for others to copy them. Since the revelation at Mount Sinai, when G'd gave us the Torah, we are obligated to fulfill every commandment applicable at any time. It is not an option for anyone to say: "I do not want just to copy others and perform a commandment that I do not understand the reason for." On the other hand, we should not perform mitzvot just because that is what everybody does or because that is the "in thing" to do in a particular society or community. Rather we must fulfill the mitzvot because G'd commanded us to do so. This is what the Prophet Isaiah (29:13) complains about in the name of G'd: "For this nation just come 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 and 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

On Shavuous we reaffirmed 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 our observance will be. We will be able not only to tell our children what to do, but also to create the atmosphere of understanding why we are doing it. 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 notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shalom. Michael Deverett

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