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Parashat 04/09/2010

Parashat Shemini

submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Parashat Shemini, as the name suggests, deals with the 8th day of the inauguration of the Mishkan (Tabernacle).  For the first seven days Moshe was the officiant, erecting the Mishkan, offering the sacrifices on behalf of the newly-minted Kohanim, and then taking down the structure.  (Given the size of the structure this was itself a miraculous feat!)  Now it was Aharon’s turn to step up and assume, permanently, the mantle of the priesthood.

For this step, a number of offerings are prescribed, including a calf as a sin-offering (9:3).  Rashi comments that the purpose of a calf specifically was:

To tell him that the Holy One Blessed be He had forgiven him, by means of this calf, for the incident of the [golden] calf.

The Siftei Chachamim, a supercommentary on Rashi, points out that normally the sin-offering of a Kohen Gadol who has erred in a matter of halachah is a bull, not a calf; therefore the fact that a calf was chosen indicates that the incident of the golden calf was forgiven.  Malbim asks a more direct question of Rashi: It has already been stated that Aharon’s part in that incident was atoned for.  Why then is a second atonement needed?  His answer gives us a profound insight into the process of individual growth and evolution.

Aharon had been, prior to Moshe’s return to Egypt, a prophet and the leader of the Jewish people.  In fact, according to the Midrash, one of the reasons that Moshe at first demurred when Gd asked him to return to Egypt (at the beginning of Shemot/Exodus) was that he didn’t want to upstage or displace his older brother.  Only after Gd assured Moshe that Aharon would in fact be happy for him, did he agree to go.

Now however, Aharon was preparing to go to the proverbial “next level.”  As Kohen Gadol Aharon would assume the position of spiritual leadership of the nation.  Of course while Moshe Rabbeinu was alive he was the primary teacher of the people, but in succeeding generations it is only Aharon’s descendents who continued his position.  Moshe’s descendents are hardly heard from again in all of Tanach, and in the one place where there is an allusion to a grandson of Moshe’s, it is only an allusion because the behavior of this particular descendent did not reflect favorably on his illustrious ancestor.

Now Malbim points out that as we move to higher levels of personal attainment, the level of perfection that is demanded of us increases.  Things that Gd might overlook in a person of lower stature must be corrected in a person of higher stature.  In Malbim’s words:

Now that Aharon had arrived at a level of holiness and service as the Kohen Gadol, the Accuser was aroused to challenge him, because of his greater closeness to Gd.

In other words, as one grows, the demand for perfection grows along with it, and the level of service to Gd that we perform has to remain commensurate with our status.  Since Aharon was moving to a higher level, he needed a new level of atonement in order to keep spiritual pace with his advancing level of personal accomplishment.

This, incidentally, is why one says Kaddish each year on the yahrzeit (anniversary) of a parent’s passing.  When our father or mother dies it is traditional to say Kaddish for 11 months after the death.  This is because we have a tradition that a soul spends no more than 12 months being purified before entering the World to Come; since we don’t want to imply by our actions that our parents need the full 12 months of purification, we only assist their ascent for 11 months.  But once they have been purified, why is there any need to say Kaddish yearly?  The answer given is that even a soul in Paradise grows and advances.  Wherever there is growth, imperfections that may have been “within tolerance” (in an engineering sense of the word “tolerance”) are no longer so.  As a soul grows, more and more imperfections must be weeded out.  And conversely, as imperfections are weeded out the soul can grow further.  Perhaps we can understand what happened to Nadav and Avihu in our Parashah in the same light.  The small imperfection in their souls that led them to attempt an unauthorized approach to H” had disastrous results.  Had they not been on such a high level, it probably wouldn’t even have entered their minds to try.

(As an aside, one would hope that the current difficult diplomatic environment in which Israel finds itself is a result of the same process.  As Israel and the Jewish people develop, we are constantly facing greater and greater challenges; in particular the challenge of relying on Gd alone for protection.  It often appears that the harder Israel tries to act in a morally acceptable manner, especially when defending itself against a vicious enemy, the more slanderous criticism it takes.  While the world certainly has no excuse for this unacceptable behavior, perhaps we can look at what’s happening as a response to Israel’s growing stature and expanding holiness.  Wherever holiness increases, the forces that oppose holiness also increase.)

Perhaps an analogy will make this clearer.  If we have a pipe that’s clogged with plaque and debris, only a very tiny, slow stream of water can get through.  The debris is blocking the water, and the stream of water is not powerful enough to clear the debris.  Now suppose we call Roto-Rooter, and they clean out quite a lot of the debris.  Now the stream of water that can flow through the pipe is much stronger, and it can, by itself, flush out the rest of the blockages.  However as the stream gets stronger, even smaller blockages will be able to break the flow down from a smooth flow into a turbulent flow.  The stronger the flow, the fewer blockages it can tolerate before breaking down into turbulence.

In the same way, if our souls are clogged with all kinds of imperfections (sins), the flow of Divine energy that we can sustain is very small.  As we grow and cleanse ourselves through prayer and t’shuvah (“repentance”) we are able to sustain a greater and greater flow of this Divine energy.  At the same time the smaller imperfections, which previously were negligible compared to our much greater flaws, now have the potential to break up the flow into turbulence, which we may experience as suffering.  Clearly we can never just rest on our laurels; in the words of a contemporary Jewish-American poet, “He not busy being born is busy dying.”

The purpose of our existence is to come close to Gd.  To do so we have to clear away the impurities in our souls that block our perception and cause us to act improperly.  Once we have done this we come to the realization that Gd has been with us all along, bathing us constantly in Divine effulgence, just waiting for us to awaken and enjoy.

Pirke Avot

It is a tradition that the 6 chapters of Pirke Avot (the Chapters of the Fathers, a collection of ethical maxims from the Sages of the Mishnah) are studied, one chapter a week, after Shabbat Minchah services during the period between Pesach and Rosh HaShanah.  There are a great number of wonderful commentaries on Pirke Avot, a very nice recent one is from R. Lau, former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel.  Without promising anything, I’ll try to pick something from each week’s chapter to explore.  This week we begin with chapter 1.  Mishnah 17 quotes Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel (he is referred to in this Mishnah simply as “Shimon” because this saying apparently predates his becoming the leader of the Jewish community):

Shimon his son would say: All my life I grew up among the Sages, and I never found anything better for oneself than silence.  Not study but practice is the main thing, and all who multiply words bring on sin.

Certainly when one is learning there is a time for listening and a time for speaking.  When one is learning, one must first hear the material from the teacher, and one must ask questions to clarify the teacher’s intent.  But real learning takes place when the student’s mind integrates the new material into the corpus of material already learned and into the experiences and insights gained on one’s own.  This integration is at its best when the mind is completely silent, when we are fully turned within ourselves.  Only when we have infused that silence into every aspect of our daily existence, can we be sure that our actions will be in accord with Gd’s will, and our speech will be pure, succinct and to the point.