Rashi, in one of the more famous passages in his Torah commentary, writes that Aharon felt dismayed over his exclusion from the chanukat ha-nesi’im – the special sacrifices offered by the tribal leaders to celebrate the consecration of the Mishkan. The leader of every tribe except Aharon’s, Levi, participated in this celebration, and so Aharon felt distressed. God sought to reassure Aharon by reminding him of the privilege he was granted to kindle the menorah each day. Already the Ramban raised the question of why Aharon, who was selected as the kohen gadol, and whose tribe was designated for the exclusive role of tending to the Mishkan, should feel slighted over his exclusion from the chanukat ha-nesi’im.
Rav Yaakov Neuberger suggested a novel and insightful explanation of Rashi’s famous comments, proposing that the nesi’im’s prominence on this occasion raised in Aharon’s mind the question as to the relative importance of his and their roles. Aharon’s duties were centered in, albeit not necessarily exclusive to, the Mishkan. He spent his days in the sacred domain of the Mishkan tending to God’s earthly abode. The nesi’im, by contrast, were the nation’s political leaders, who tended to the nation’s pragmatic needs. They, for example, assisted Moshe in counting the tribes when God commanded that a census be taken. Aharon and the Leviyim were responsible for the nation’s spiritual center, whereas the nesi’im oversaw the administrative, pragmatic concerns. Aharon spend the bulk of his time in the Mishkan, while the nesi’im were busy working with the people. And this, Rav Neuberger writes, is what caused Aharon unease:
For twelve days he and his family were left to ponder the relative value of the builders and the preservers; of the streetwise guides and the secluded saints; of those who facilitate transporting the mishkan from place to place and those who light up an established sanctuary; of those who help us in sacrifice and prayer and those who would embrace together with us the fullness of human endeavor.
He was disturbed not by his exclusion from the chanukat ha-nesi’im per se, but rather by the nagging question of whether his insular work inside the Mishkan was as significant as the vital administrative work done by the other tribal leaders.
We might add that for the reason, God responded to Aharon by noting the mitzva of kindling the menorah. Light has the capacity to illuminate even a space very distant from the source of the flame. Aharon was reminded that although the bulk of his work was done inside the Mishkan, the effects were felt far beyond. The actions we perform away from the public eye indeed have an impact, even if we cannot see how. The “lights” we kindle through our study, prayer and observance have an “illuminating” effect that spreads far and wide. And thus both models of leadership and public service – that of Aharon and that of the nesi’im – are vitally important, as both make a significant and profound impact upon Am Yisrael and upon the world.