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Parashat Shemini 5772 – 04/18/2012

Parashat Shemini

Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

And [Moses] was wrathful with Elazar and Itamar, Aharon’s remaining sons (10:16)

Moses understood [Aharon’s reasoning] and he approved (10:20)

It is a man’s good sense to be slow to anger, and his glory to pass over a transgression (Prov. 19:11)

Elijah the prophet said: “If you never come to anger, you will never come to sin” (Berachot 29a)

Whoever loses his temper – if he is a scholar he will lose his wisdom; if he is a prophet he will lose his ruach hakodesh (Pesachim 66b)

Whoever gets angry, all the torments of Gehenna rule over him (Ramban, Iggeret haRamban – these last 4 passages are quoted in R. Avrohom Chaim Feuer’s edition of Iggeret haRamban, published by Artscroll)

He who is able, even here, before liberation from the body, to resist the excitement born of desire and anger, is united with the Divine.  He is a happy man. (Bhagavad Gita 5:23)

A sales manager I once worked under used to say “You teach what you need to learn.”  Indeed the issue I want to deal with in this drash is something that is very close to my heart – much too close.  Probably close enough to give me a heart attack Gd forbid.  It has taken me close to 50 years and I don’t know how many poisoned relationships to learn at least to direct my anger away from people and towards inanimate objects (my computer, which can be very frustrating at times, is a favorite target of my verbal abuse).  Nevertheless, anger is extremely destructive and potentially a great desecration of Gd’s Name, as we see in our passages quoted above.

As usual, Moshe Rabbeinu is our teacher, in this case, by example.  Moshe and Aharon were involved in a halachic dispute.  The dispute involved the consumption by the Kohanim (Aharon and his two remaining sons) of the sin-offerings.  On this first day of the Kohanim’s acceding to their office, there were 3 sin-offerings and two meal-offerings: there was the sin-offering and meal-offering of the inauguration – these were special, one-time offerings for the occasion of the inauguration only; they were never repeated, even when Solomon’s Temple was inaugurated.  The second were the sin-offering and meal-offering of Nachshon ben Aminadav, the first of the tribal princes to bring their special offerings in honor of the inauguration (see parashat Naso, the second parashah of Bamidbar, and also the reading for Chanukah).  These too were special, one-time offerings; each of the 12 tribal leaders brought his offering on a separate day.  Nachshon was the leader of the tribe of Yehudah and was the first to bring his offerings.  The third sin-offering (unaccompanied by a meal-offering) was the usual sin-offering of Rosh Chodesh (the new moon / beginning of the Jewish month) – an offering that was made throughout the generations as long as there was a Mishkan or a Temple.

One important feature of both sin-offerings and meal-offerings (most of them) is that they achieve atonement not only through the service at the Altar, but also by the Kohen’s consumption of the parts that are not offered on the Altar.  Even in the case of the offerings of the inauguration and of the tribal leaders, which were not specifically to atone for any sin, but rather to provide purification and elevation to a higher spiritual level, the Kohanim were instructed to eat the offerings.  The problem was, all the (three) Kohanim were mourners, as their sons and brothers (i.e. Nadav and Avihu) had just died!  A Kohen is not allowed to serve in the Mishkan or Temple while a mourner, except for the Kohen Gadol (High Priest, i.e. Aharon), and certainly may not eat of any sacred offerings.  What to do?

Moshe, presumably based on instructions received directly from Gd, ordered Aharon and his sons to eat the meal-offerings and the sin-offerings.  Aharon and his sons reasoned that since the meal-offerings were one-off deals, and they were the subject of a special exception to the laws governing a Kohen who is a mourner, then they should only eat of the meat of the two special one-off sin-offerings as well, but not of the meat of the regular sin-offering of Rosh Chodesh. 

Now here is the point: when Moshe heard that the Rosh Chodesh sin-offering had been burned (as must be done to a sin-offering that cannot be eaten for whatever reason), he got angry.  Once that happened, his ability to reason through the situation, and apparently also his intuitive insight into what was appropriate behavior in this unusual situation, were impaired.  It is only a few verses later, when Aharon calmly explained the reasoning behind what he did, that Moshe agreed that Aharon was correct.  It is a testament to Moshe Rabbeinu’s humility and integrity that he was not embarrassed or hesitant to admit an error.  But it is highly instructive to us to see the source of that error – anger.

In the incident where Moshe and Aharon were instructed to speak to the rock so that it would give forth its water for the people, we see a similar dynamic, only acted out in the public sphere.  After 40 years of wandering in the wilderness and dealing with the kvetching and complaining of several million people, Moshe cries out “Listen up you rebels, should we get water out of this rock?!” and he hits the rock instead of speaking gently to it.  For this transgression (and the commentators come up with a variety of explanations of what exactly constituted the transgression) Moshe Rabbeinu is denied entry into the Land of Israel.  Again, his anger apparently clouded his ability to perceive the fine levels of creation that would have been required to bring forth water from the rock (not that any of us can bring water from a rock by hitting it either of course!).  More to the point, it apparently displayed to Gd that it was time for new leadership.

If this is the case with Moshe Rabbeinu, the greatest of all the prophets and the man closest to Gd in all our history, how much more so for us.  How damaging is anger!  How many of us have gotten so angry that we “see red” (because our blood pressure shoots up and there’s more blood in our retinas) – we see red, but we can’t see anything else.  How many of us have gotten so worked up over some issue that we just rehearsed the arguments over and over in our minds, ceaselessly spinning, unable to pursue any other lines of reasoning, unable to even function in the world, an accident waiting to happen behind the wheel, putting off friends and family?  How many of us have taken a perceived slight and nursed our grudges into a decades-long family feud?  The list could go on and on – I am just bringing examples from my own life.  This is not to mention actual physical violence and murder.

Clearly it is in everybody’s interest to overcome anger, for our own sake, for our physical health and our psychological equanimity, and for the sake of everyone around us.  How do we do it?  If I knew for sure of course I wouldn’t still be struggling with this plague myself.  But I think there is a hint in a saying of our Sages, that when one becomes angry it is as if he worshiped idols.  What does this mean?  I think the root cause of anger is the feeling that the world was created to run according to our specifications; when it doesn’t we get uncomfortable, frustrated and we lash out at whatever is handy.  In other words, we deny the truth at the basis of our entire tradition and outlook on life, and that is that Gd created the universe according to His specifications, and put us here to bring that creation to perfection.  This is a daunting challenge, and we are bound to have setbacks along the way.  In fact, the challenges and setbacks are there for our own good – to force us to stretch ourselves, to grow to the maximum extent possible, and to earn the right to draw closer to Gd.  With this perspective perhaps we can take a step back when we feel anger coming on and remind ourselves that we’re too busy doing Gd’s work to waste time with this useless emotion.  Good luck!


Pirke Avot, Chapter 1

We begin our study of Pirke Avot again.  Each Shabbat we study one of the six chapters, so we complete the entire tractate by Shavuot, the commemoration of the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, 7 weeks after the Exodus from Egypt.  We then cycle through the tractate until Rosh HaShanah.  We typically associate this study with the Shabbat Minchah service.  (During the winter, between Rosh HaShanah and Pesach, we recite Psalms 104 and 120-134 – Shir HaMa’alot / Songs of Ascents.)

Mishnah 1: 

Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshus.

Even so, why does the mishnah not state that “Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and gave it to Joshua”?  Why does it prefer the verb transmitted?  The answer is that the Torah is no one’s property.  Although we can acquire knowledge of it, it is given into our hands only so that we may pass it on.  It cannot be given, which would imply personal possession.  It can only be transmitted.  (R. Yisrael Meir Lau, R. Lau on Pirkei Avos, Artscroll Series)

As Rav Lau points out, Torah, and by extension Judaism, is nobody’s possession.  It is eternal wisdom, the subtle structure from which all creation emerged, as our Sages tell us: When Gd wanted to create, He looked into Torah.  It is the blueprint of creation.  None of us, not even Moshe Rabbeinu, could comprehend it all, for it is bigger than any of us, it is bigger than all of us.  However, each of us is a vehicle by which Torah is actualized in the world.  By practicing what Torah preaches to us we become more refined vehicles, able to actualize Torah to a greater and greater degree and more and more perfectly.  Ultimately, we make Torah our own and we transmit Torah by living it every day.

I would like to add a personal note here.  I have been writing these drashes for several years now and I’ve experienced tremendous growth in my knowledge and understanding of Torah and of life, because writing (and all forms of teaching) really give you the opportunity to reflect upon and concretize your thoughts, experiences and understandings.  But – Torah is certainly not my possession either!  I’d really encourage every one of you to pick up pen and paper (sooo 1900’s…) and try your hand at these drashes.  Make Torah yours as well!