SALT - Wednesday, 11 Sivan 5780 - June 3, 2020

  • Rav David Silverberg
            Parashat Behaalotekha begins with a brief reiteration of the command to kindle the menorah in the Mishkan, and Rashi (in most editions of his commentary) famously offers an explanation for the purpose of this reiteration here in this parasha.  Based on the Midrash Tanchuma, Rashi writes that when the nesi’iim (tribal leaders) offered their special gifts and offerings to celebrate the Mishkan’s inauguration, as we read in the conclusion of the previous parasha, Aharon felt uneasy.  All the tribes were represented in this celebration, except for his tribe – the tribe of Levi, and so Aharon felt he missed out on this special opportunity.  God sought to allay Aharon’s concerns by reminding him of the special privilege he had to minister in the Mishkan each day, and so He reiterated the command of the daily kindling of the menorah.
            Aharon’s reaction to the offerings of the nesi’im, as depicted in the Midrash, perhaps represents the uneasiness and insecurity we often feel when we observe people achieving in ways which we cannot.  If we are spiritually conscientious and ambitious, the accomplishments of others could lead us to worry that we are not accomplishing enough ourselves, that we are failing if we are not doing the special things that they are doing.  In some instances, this may be correct, and indeed, at times we may and we should draw inspiration and motivation from other people’s achievements, in the spirit of the famous dictum, “Kin’at sofrim tarbeh chokhma” – “Envy among scholars increases wisdom” (Bava Batra 21a).  More generally, however, our reaction to such feelings must be – like God told Aharon – to focus our attention on our particular role, rather than feel threatened by the roles filled by other people.  Their impressive accomplishments in no way undermines the value or importance of our own accomplishments.  No two people are meant to achieve the same way.  The fact that others achieve in ways that we do not or cannot, should not cause us to worry that we are failing to achieve enough.
            Parashat Behaalotekha concludes with the story of Miriam, who was punished for voicing inappropriate criticism of her brother, Moshe.  Rashi (12:1-2), based on the Sifrei, explains that Moshe had separated from his wife because he felt he would have otherwise been unable to maintain the special level of spiritual focus which his unique stature of prophecy required.  Miriam criticized this decision, asking, “Did the Lord speak only to Moshe?  Did He not speak also to us?!” (12:2).  If other prophets could remain married, Miriam argued, then so could Moshe.  God responded to Miriam by emphasizing Moshe’s unique, unparalleled spiritual stature (12:12:7-8).
            Miriam, in a sense, made the same mistake as Aharon did in the beginning of the parasha, only in the converse.  Aharon felt concerned that he did not do what others did, whereas Miriam criticized Moshe for not doing what she did.  The mistaken assumption underlying both these responses to other people’s conduct is that one person’s way of doing things is necessarily right for another person.  Just as it is wrong to think that we must conduct our religious live precisely the same way as other people, so is it wrong to think that others must conduct their religious lives precisely the same way we do.  We should feel comfortable with our unique capabilities and unique role which we try to fulfill, and also respect other people’s uniqueness and their quest to pursue the path which they are meant to follow.