Structure and Initiative

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



Structure and Initiative

Summarized by David Silverberg


We can only imagine how coveted a position the kehuna gedola (high priesthood) must have been. One need only jump ahead two parashot to Korach's revolt to gain a sense of the respect and honor associated with the title of "kohen gadol." Nevertheless, according to the midrash cited in the opening comment of Rashi to our parasha, Aharon Ha-kohen was envious of the nesi'im, the twelve tribal leaders of Benei Yisrael, as they offered the sacrifices for the chanukat ha-mishkan, the dedication ceremony for the Tabernacle. The midrash relates that God assuaged Aharon by reminding him of his exclusive privilege of lighting the menora in the mishkan each day.

Many commentators, most notably Ramban, are baffled by this midrash. Firstly, why should Aharon have felt jealousy at all? Was it not enough for him that he alone earned the right of passage into the kodesh kodashim, as part of fulfilling the most sacred of tasks, eliciting atonement for Benei Yisrael on Yom Kippur? Furthermore, why would specifically the menora heal Aharon's envy-stricken mind? What makes this service more special than all others?

Perhaps we can suggest an explanation based on an answer which Ramban himself raises but subsequently rejects. Aharon's disappointment may have resulted from the voluntary nature of the nesi'im's offering. Whereas the kohen gadol's service is explicitly outlined and mandated by God, the nesi'im brought their offering out of their own volition. Aharon envied the nesi'im's sense of initiative, which inspired them to lead Benei Yisrael in the consecration of the mishkan. One who performs only that which was assigned proceeds almost mechanically; the volunteer's work evolves from an inspiration and self-motivation. This distinction is the source of Aharon's jealousy.

However, the question remains, why would the mitzva of lighting the menora cure Aharon's envy? Lighting the menora, too, was specifically commanded by God, and was performed involuntarily! For this reason, Ramban dismisses this explanation.

Perhaps Ramban's suggestion is, in fact, the key to understanding the midrash. God's response to Aharon undermined and negated Aharon's premise. Service performed out of obligation is actually greater than that which is discharged voluntarily. "Gadol ha-metzuveh ve-oseh yoter mi-mi she-eino metzuveh ve-oseh." A mitzva performed out one's own volition results from a fleeting, temporary moment of inspiration. However, being part of a rigid framework demanding and dictating "do's and don'ts" guarantees constancy and consistency in one's service of God.

The Maharal cites a midrash which lists a series of precepts, such as "Love thy neighbor as thyself," as a "kelal gadol ba-Torah" - a central principle of the Torah. The midrash culminates, "Et ha-keves echad ta'aseh ba-boker... kelal gadol mi-zeh" - the obligatory daily sacrifices, the korban tamid, represent a more inclusive principle of the Torah! The most critical religious precept is constancy - the steady, day-in and day-out commitment to doing God's will. Therefore, God appeased Aharon by stressing his central role in managing the day-to-day affairs of the mishkan. Each morning and evening throughout the year, Aharon was bidden to tend to the menora. Thus, this specific mitzva represents Aharon's privilege of constant involvement in the mishkan, as opposed to the nesi'im's single moment of inspiration during the dedication of the mishkan.

However, these two aspects of mitzva performance, steady obedience and personal initiative, are not at all mutually exclusive. The rigid system of Halakha not only allows but demands initiative and creativity. Ramban (Bamidbar 7:12) asserts that the decision of each nasi to bring an offering for the chanukat ha-mishkan emerged from completely disparate considerations. Although their sacrifices turned out to be identical, their motivations were unrelated.

Similarly, a person must ensure that despite the external resemblance between his performances of mitzvot, each act must differ qualitatively from the next. His Mincha prayer on Tuesday must be different from his Monday Mincha, and so should the "daf Gemara" be more meaningful Friday morning than on Thursday morning. Even within the structured framework, a person must constantly introduce his own initiative to find meaning and significance in each mitzva performance. We should each try to be like the Chassidic Rebbe of whom it was said that he never performed the same mitzva twice - meaning that he never performed a mitzva by rote, or with the same intention as previously. Rather, he infused each act, each time, with a creativity and intention all its own.

Rashi understands the phrase "va-ya'as ken Aharon" (8:3) as lauding Aharon for performing the mitzva of lighting the menora properly, without even the slightest deviation. Aharon's greatness lay in his ability to carry out the identical task each day, while ensuring that each performance differed inherently from the next. He did not deviate from the detailed halakhot governing the lighting of the menora. However, he instilled a different character to each act, effectively combining the ideal of the halakhic structure with that of personal motivation and initiative.

(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat parashat Behaalotekha 5755 [1995].)


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