The Dedication of the Altar
Summarized by Rav Eliyahu Blumenzweig
Translated by Kaeren Fish.
"Why was the parasha dealing with the menora juxtaposed to the parasha dealing with the princes of the tribes? Because when Aharon witnessed the role of the princes in dedicating the mishkan, he was saddened at not being among them, representing his tribe. God said to him, 'On your life - your [task] is greater than theirs, for you light and prepare the candles.'" (Midrash Tanchuma Bamidbar 5)
The Ramban expresses surprise at these words: what reason could there possibly be for Aharon to feel saddened - Aharon, who entered the Kodesh Kodashim on Yom Kippur, who brought the meal-offerings of the Kohen Gadol and was involved in other sacrificial tasks that were his responsibility alone? And even more surprising - what consolation did he find in God's assurance regarding the re-dedication of the Beit Ha-Mikdash by the Hasmoneans (according to the Ramban's explanation of God's answer)?
It seems that the princes of the other tribes did in fact merit to perform a special task, which Aharon envied: that of the dedication of the mizbe'ach (altar). They were the ones who dedicated God's mishkan; they were the first to bring their sacrifices to the mishkan. Aharon envied their sense of initiative, of being the first. The forces which are unleashed and revealed by virtue of the primary act are enormous and wondrous. The steps which follow are built on the previous ones, on that primary act, and they reinforce what already exists. Hence the great importance of the first step, which serves to form and lay the foundations of the future edifice.
With that first step, with the laying of the foundations of any endeavor, all the power is drawn from the future, from the vision which will be realized from that moment onwards. Such actions, which draw their power from the view towards the future, contain tremendous inner strength.
Thus the Ramban explains that just as the princes were equal in wisdom, so were the measures of each of their sacrifices equal. Remarkably enough, this was achieved without any consultation or previous agreement between them. Each prince did his own calculation according to his personality and his considerations, and each ended up with the same decision as the others. This, then, reveals the principle that the forces which are connected to the primary act are all derived from a single sublime source, influencing and being influenced by it.
This was the primacy which Aharon sought, and his lack of participation in this act is what saddened him. And it was in response to that sadness that he was told that he, too, would merit to perform an initiatory act - that of lighting the menora. In general, every act or task is an addition and reinforcement to what already exists. But lighting always comes only when that which existed previously has already been extinguished, such that each time the lighting is a separate act which does not derive its strength from the acts which preceded it. Each act of lighting represents continual renewal, without any reliance on the past.
"A mitzva is a candle, and the Torah is light" - Torah is truly a light, and at its foundation is the idea that each day Torah should appear new and fresh to us. We are to study Torah and engage in the mitzvot with eye to the future, with the expectation of the realization of our goals. Then the future and the goal will provide the great power contained in the primary step, which is continually being renewed.
If there is any period in a person's life which symbolizes primacy and originality, and power drawn from the future, it is the time of youth. This was the period in the life of the nation when the Torah was given, the period of "chesed ne'urayikh" - as God says, "I remember the lovingkindness of your youth" (Yirmiyahu 2). It was during this period that the tremendous powers contained within Israel were revealed, when they followed God with boundless yearning and longing, "When you walked after me in the desert, in an unplanted land..." (ibid.).
The Zohar teaches that prior to the generation which left Egypt and received the Torah, there was another generation in which the Torah should have been given - the generation of the Flood. That, too, was a period of "youth," a time when tremendous powers were revealed and great strides were made in many areas of life. But this was a time of "the sins of youth" - the great powers contained in this beginning were directed towards negative ends, and led to destruction and ruin. The generation of the desert demonstrated "forces of youth" directed towards lovingkindness (chesed) and hence became worthy of receiving the Torah.