Obligation and Initiative

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



Obligation and Initiative

Summarized by Ari Mermelstein


In the beginning of this week's parasha, Rashi explains why the command for Aharon to light the menora follows the section dealing with the sacrifices brought by the tribal leaders (nesi'im). Upon witnessing the tribal leaders' role in the consecration of the mishkan, Aharon grew envious of the great honor which God bestowed upon them. In order to allay his anxiety, God gave Aharon the daily task of lighting the menora, an honor which far outweighed that of the tribal leaders.

The Ramban (Bamidbar 8:1) is disturbed by this midrash. Did Aharon not know that the tribal leaders' sacrifices paled in comparison with the sacrifices he was designated to bring at the consecration of the mishkan? Furthermore, why would God choose to console Aharon specifically by honoring him with the daily lighting of the menora, as opposed to his other functions in the mishkan, such as the daily incense offering or the Yom Kippur service?

In an attempted defense of the midrash, the Ramban proposes that Aharon's jealousy stemmed not from a sense that his honor had been slighted, but rather from a recognition that the nesi'im had VOLUNTEERED their korbanot. Aharon coveted the spontaneity and creativity which that sense of good-will afforded them. In contrast, Aharon's role, though important, was not a matter of choice, and he understood that this obligation might lead to a mechanical performance of his duties. The Ramban ultimately rejects this explanation because it fails to explain why granting him another obligation (the lighting of the menora) should console him.

It is to this last point in the Ramban that I address my words. Although the Ramban felt it illogical that the Torah should try to remedy the situation by adding to Aharon's obligations, it seems to me that in doing so, the Torah was actually solving Aharon's problem. The Rambam writes (Hilkhot Kelei Ha-mikdash 3:1): "It is a positive commandment for Levites to be available and ready to perform their duties in the Temple, whether they wish to do so or not ..." However, Aharon erred in his conclusion that coerced duties would be devoid of any spiritual content and spontaneity; rather, only through a sense of obligation and unwavering commitment could he achieve religious fulfillment. Therefore, God presented him with an additional obligation, to demonstrate that only through a sense of total commitment could he attain true spontaneity in his worship.

This message is particularly relevant today. Western culture has slowly crept into the beit midrash - not Western culture symbolized by earrings and long hair, but rather something more subtle. Individualism is a hallmark of the Western world, and one's right to do that which is most pleasing to him is taken for granted. This sense of liberalism has had a marked impact in the beit midrash. No longer is the sense of obligation (which the Torah stressed to Aharon as the ideal) widespread among the "yoshvei beit ha-midrash." A subjective preference to learn in one's room rather than in the beit midrash, or to learn some books rather than others, takes precedence. In contrast to this new wave of independence, the Maharal quotes an appropriate midrash (Netivot Olam, Netiv Ahavat Ha-reia, chapter one): "'The one lamb shalt thou offer in the morning, and the other lamb shalt thou offer in the evening'" (Bamidbar 28:4) – zeh klal gadol ba-Torah, this is a major principle of the Torah." The message is clear: consistency stemming from a sense of obligation is a basic tenet in service of God.

In my life, I have had personal experience regarding the importance of this message. I had two very gifted friends with me in yeshiva, one of whom was a free spirit doing as he pleased. When the yeshiva slept, he learned, and when it learned, he slept. If the yeshiva learned Zevachim or Bava Kama, he learned Menachot or Bava Metzia. My second friend was very disciplined, always doing what he was supposed to do. Both of my friends became important people, but my disciplined friend, who always felt a sense of obligation, became the more creative and spontaneous of the two. He developed a strong base for himself which allowed him to continue to grow. By contrast, my other friend wasted so much creative energy, never doing what he was supposed to do and solely doing what he wanted to, that his potential remains untapped.

Aharon heeded the message of the Torah and internalized it. The Torah states regarding the commandment to light the menora, "and so did Aharon" (Bamidbar 8:3). Rashi there comments that this statement intends "to praise Aharon that he did not alter" the procedure which the Torah instituted for him. Apparently, Aharon understood that service out of a sense of obligation, performed with consistency, was the preferred path in avodat Hashem (divine service). We, too, should hearken to this message, understand it, and implement it in our daily lives as benei Torah and ovdei Hashem.

(Originally delivered at Seuda Shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Beha'alotekha 5757.)



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