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Parashat Tzav 5773 — 03/20/2013

Parashat Tzav 5773 — 03/20/2013

Is there not Aharon your brother, the Levite? (Ex 4:14)

For in the future he [Aharon] was to be the Levite and not the Kohen, and I was planning that the Priesthood would come from you [and your descendants].  But now it won’t be like that; rather he will be the Kohen and you will be the Levite… (Rashi ad loc from Shemot Rabbah 3:17 and Zevachim 102a)

Moshe said to Aharon and his sons … you shall be inaugurated for a seven-day period (8:31,33)

And it was in the morning and behold! It was Leah!  (Gen 29:25)

Was your taking my husband insignificant that you now want to take my son’s duda’im?!  Rachel said, “Therefore he shall lie with you tonight in return for your son’s duda’im.”  (Gen 30:15)

I am actually writing during the week just following Parashat Vayetze, where Yaakov goes to his uncle Lavan and marries his two daughters.  Our portion this week details, inter alia, the seven-day period of inauguration of Aharon and his sons as Kohanim.  For this seven-day period the duties of the Kohen Gadol are performed by Moshe Rabbeinu, while Aharon and his sons watched and learned by command (beginning of the Parashah) and then by example (end of the Parashah).  The Midrash fills in a lot of the details, and some subplots behind these stories.  In a way they turn out to be quite parallel and teach us a great lesson, as I hope to show you.

The first quote comes at the end of Moshe Rabbeinu’s first, long conversation with Gd at the burning bush.  In fact, as the beginning of the verse states, this is where Gd finally “loses His patience” with Moshe and tells him to quit stalling and go to Egypt as he’d been commanded.  Rashi points out that this was on the seventh day of Gd’s attempting to convince Moshe to go.  The Midrash picks up on the seemingly superfluous identification of Aharon as “the Levite.”  We are well aware of Aharon’s heritage from the very beginning of Sefer Shemot where it tells us that a man of the tribe of Levi took the daughter of Levi and continues with the story of Moshe’s birth.  Obviously Moshe Rabbeinu was aware of his brother’s heritage as well!  Rashi quotes Shemot Rabbah to the effect that Gd was hinting to Moshe that as a result of his intransigence he would be demoted from Kohen to Levi and Aharon would be promoted in the opposite direction.

Now elsewhere in the Midrash it is stated that Moshe’s real reluctance to go to Egypt and bring out the nation was that he was solicitous of his brother Aharon’s feelings.  Moshe had been living for a long time in Midian.  There is some evidence that he was only 12 when he fled Egypt, and the text tells us that he was 80 when he returned.  Since he had fled the wrath of Pharaoh after killing the Egyptian taskmaster, he presumably was keeping a fairly low profile; undoubtedly he got rid of his cell phone and closed his Facebook and Twitter accounts to make his whereabouts harder to trace.  In the meantime Aharon was laboring as the leader of the nation during its most difficult period.  How would he feel to have his younger brother, who grew up in Pharaoh’s palace, then lived abroad and married a foreign woman, come waltzing back in at the last moment and usurp the leadership?!  As it turns out, Gd assures Moshe that Aharon would come out to greet him as he approached Egypt, would be overjoyed to see him again, and would have no problem ceding the mantle of leadership.

Now I have never seen this discussed (which, given my very limited erudition, is hardly much evidence that in fact our Sages did not in fact consider this possibility), but suppose Moshe, the greatest prophet ever to live, was quite aware that by holding out against going back to Egypt he was giving up the Kehunah in favor of his brother Aharon, and was willing to do so to avoid hurting his feelings.  Aharon, on the other hand, was perfectly happy giving up the leadership to Moshe, who, it had become apparent, was operating on a whole different level.  Two brothers, both willing to sacrifice something very precious because of their love for one another and for the nation.  Moshe’s reward is that he does get to function as Kohen Gadol for seven days, corresponding to the seven days of his “holdout,” although this “reward” may have only highlighted for him what he might have had, but gave up.  Aharon’s reward is that he indeed is second fiddle to Moshe, but he and his descendants forever have the spiritual leadership of the nation.

Now, rewind to Parashat Vayetze.  Ya’akov has worked 7 years for the right to marry Rachel, Lavan’s younger daughter.  Knowing that Lavan was a scoundrel Ya’akov specified very clearly whom he meant when he first made the deal (the Talmud uses this verse as an example of how clearly contracts should be specified).  Nonetheless, suspecting trickery, Rachel and Ya’akov create a series of passwords (in the original sense!) by which Rachel would identify herself to Ya’akov.  No passwords, light goes on and the fraud is revealed before it is consummated.  When Rachel found out that Lavan was planning to switch in her own sister, Leah, she had second thoughts about the passwords.  She could not bear to see her sister humiliated, so on what was supposed to be her own wedding night, she gave her sister the passwords, and just to be sure that there would be no slip-up, she hid in the room (which was presumably completely dark in accordance with Jewish Law and Lavan’s trickery) and actually spoke them out in her own voice.  Since Ya’akov’s prophetic abilities should have been well-known to Rachel by this time, I don’t know how the sisters thought this would work, but it was better than doing nothing at all.  Since Leah was to be the mother of 6 of the 12 tribes, the ruse worked, Ya’akov was with the woman he sensed he should be with, and in the morning, surprise!  It was Leah!

In a later incident, Leah’s eldest son brings home a plant called in Hebrew duda’im.  Apparently this plant was quite prized as a fertility treatment; it is often translated into English as mandrakes, which were reputed to have such properties.  When Rachel asked for some of the duda’im, Leah retorted, “Isn’t it enough that you stole my husband – now you want my son’s duda’im as well?!”  Rachel calmly replied that she would forgo her night with Ya’akov in return for the duda’im.  The Midrash tells us that in return for giving up the opportunity to be with Ya’akov the tzaddik, Rachel lost the right to be buried with him in the cave of Machpelah, and indeed Rachel died in childbirth and was buried “on the road to Ephrat (Bethlehem),” where her grave may be visited to this day.  Leah is interred in Machpelah with Ya’akov, Yitzchak and Rivka, Avraham and Sarah, and Adam and Eve.

The S’fas Emes (2nd Gerrer Rebbe, died 1905) gives a fascinating explanation of this entire interaction, which I heard this week from R. Frand’s weekly shiur.  Note that, since the Patriarchs are said to have upheld the entire Torah before it was given, the question arises how Ya’akov could have married two sisters.  Such a marriage is prohibited by Torah so that sisters not be turned into romantic rivals; if a man’s wife dies he may marry her sister, but if they divorce he may not as long as his ex-wife lives.  Once the Torah was given of course this law became absolute, but in Ya’akov’s time he was free to question whether the law applies.  Since Torah explicitly states that the purpose of the rule is to avoid this enhanced sibling rivalry, and since Rachel had shown with her selflessness that such a consideration did not apply to her, Ya’akov went ahead and married her.  However, the Sfas Emes argues, people can often rise way above their spiritual abilities or spiritual stature for a short time.  Perhaps Rachel’s giving the passwords to Leah was a one-time thing, and Ya’akov overestimated her level of development.  In that case his marriage to Rachel would in fact be illegal, and any children they would have had together would have been illegitimate (mamzerim).  Only after Rachel passes over Leah’s unwarranted complaints (did Rachel really steal her husband?!  Rachel gave her the passwords so that Leah would not be humiliated!) and in fact gave up her place with Ya’akov in Machpelah, did it become clear that this is who Rachel really was.  Shortly thereafter Yosef was born, his lineage now beyond question.

And lest you think this giving was a one-way street, after Ya’akov’s first 11 sons were born, Leah again became pregnant and gave birth to Dinah (Judgment).  Our Sages tell us that Leah judged herself – she saw that if she were to be pregnant with Ya’akov’s 12th son, her sister Rachel would be stuck on one, less than each of the handmaids.  Not wanting Rachel to have this humiliation, she prayed that her child be a girl.  Now ordinarily this kind of prayer is forbidden, as it is asking Gd to “go back in time” and alter what has already occurred.  Gd of course can do this, but it is unseemly to ask, as if we deserve such special treatment – plus, if Gd does do a miracle for us, it detracts from our reward in the World to Come, as if we’ve used some of our “credit” in this world.  In this case, perhaps since Leah was praying not for her own benefit, but for her sister’s, Gd did a bit of “genetic engineering” and she had a daughter instead of a son.  Shortly thereafter Rachel had Binyamin, the only one of the 12 sons to be born in the Land of Israel, and, according to Rabbinic tradition, one of only four people in history to die only because death was decreed on humanity because of Adam’s sin.

Two sisters, each willing to sacrifice something very precious for each other.  Leah’s reward is to be the progenitress of the spiritual leadership of Israel (the Kohanim and Levites, both from the tribe of Levi) and the temporal leadership as well (the house of King David, from the tribe of Yehudah).  Rachel’s reward, according to the Sfas Emes, is that she becomes the “mother of all Israel.”  It doesn’t matter which tribe you come from or from which of the foremothers, everyone goes to Rachel’s Tomb to pray when their hearts are broken and they need a mother’s comfort.

I heard, again from R. Frand, a more modern story along these lines.  There was a chazzan at a shul in B’nei B’rak who was getting on in years, and his voice on Yom Kippur could no longer be heard above the air conditioners.  Yom Kippur is still very hot in the Tel Aviv area, and turning off the air conditioner was not an option.  The synagogue asked the man if he would let someone younger take over, but he had been doing it for many years, and the halachah requires that someone not be unceremoniously thrown out of a job that he has performed well for a long time.  They all went to the gadol hador (leader of the generation, and I apologize, I don’t remember who specifically it was) and explained the situation.  The Rabbi affirmed that the man had a right to his position, but he told him I’ve never seen anyone lose out by ceding his rights.  After some discussion, the man agreed.  Within a few weeks of his decision, a whole series of personal, family and financial problems in his life simply resolved themselves.

A wise man once said, “Everything we get, we get to give away.”  The harder we hold on to anything, the more it ends up holding on to us, impeding our growth and progress.  Our values we must hold onto for dear life, “for they are our life and the length of our days.”  For everything else, the more we let go, the more we will find freedom and riches both.