Rashi, in his famous opening comments to Parashat Behaalotekha, cites from the Midrash an explanation for why the command concerning the kindling of the menorah, with which this parasha opens, appears following the story of the Mishkan’s dedication. To commemorate the event of the Mishkan’s dedication, the twelve nesi’im (tribal leaders) brought an elaborate series of gifts and sacrifices, as we read in the final section of the previous parasha, Parashat Naso. The only tribe that did not participate was the tribe of Levi. Rashi tells that Aharon felt uneasy about having not taken part in this special series of gifts and sacrifices, and God sought to reassure him and lift his spirits by reminding him of the privilege he had to kindle the menorah.
Already the Ramban raises the question of why Aharon’s concerns would be put to rest specifically by the mitzva of the menorah. As the kohen gadol, Aharon had numerous special privileges, and performed numerous unique roles. Why would the mitzva of kindling the menorah, in particular, console him over having been excluded from the gifts of the nesi’im? What’s more, the kindling of the menorah did not have to be performed specifically by the kohen gadol. Even though here in this context God speaks of Aharon kindling the lamps of the menorah, the Torah elsewhere mentions explicitly that Aharon or his sons may perform this ritual (Shemot 27:21). And, in truth, even non-kohanim were eligible to perform this ritual (Rambam, Hilkhot Bi’at Mikdash 9:7). Why, then, would this mitzva provide consolation for Aharon?
One answer that has been offered is that Aharon was envious specifically of the voluntary nature of the nesi’im’s gift. He was assigned many distinguished jobs as the kohen gadol, but they were all mandatory. Aharon recognized the special value of extending beyond the strict call of duty, of initiating and striving to achieve more than what is demanded. And so he felt great respect and admiration for the nesi’im, who took it upon themselves to voluntarily bring lavish gifts and a large number of sacrifices to mark the occasion of the Mishkan’s dedication, and he envied their spirit of volunteerism. God therefore reassured Aharon by pointing to his voluntary insistence on kindling the menorah each day in the Beit Ha-mikdash. As the Ramban (8:3) writes, Aharon made a point of personally lighting the menorah each day even though this did not have to be done specifically by the kohen gadol, because he understood the immense value of this mitzva. Aharon felt dismayed over not having joined the nesi’im in their voluntary measure, but God assured him that he was privileged to undertake the voluntary measure of kindling the menorah each day.
If so, then the Midrash perhaps conveys an important message concerning personal, voluntary initiative in religious life. While we all share the same basic code of obligations and restrictions, the Torah leaves room for individual religious expression, for undertaking voluntary, individual projects and practices beyond the strict requirements of Halakha. The story of Aharon perhaps reminds us that these initiatives must serve the purpose of self-actualization, and should not mimic the initiatives of others. Aharon’s mistake was in looking at the nesi’im’s voluntary initiative as a model which he should have embraced, when in truth, as kohen gadol, he had different areas in which to initiate. When it comes to voluntary religious measures that extend beyond our strict requirements, we each need to identify the measures that best suit us, that allow us to actualize our unique potential. We should not assume that other people’s areas of expertise, or areas of special focus and attention, in which they seek to achieve beyond their strict religious requirements, are the same areas in which we are to seek to pay special attention and initiate. We must each find our own path to religious excellence and achievement. Even as we share the same basic halakhic creed which we must meticulously observe, we should each try to identify our unique strengths and talents that can be used for personal initiative in the service of the Almighty.