Parshat Shemini

In memory of Reuven ben Sarah

  1. Why Aaron Was Chosen
  2. Skeleton in the Closet
  3. Bumpy Road to Priesthood
  4. Fulfilling Phylacteries
  5. Contaminated Water Purification

Why Aaron Was Chosen

Vayomer Moshe el Aaron krav el hamizbeach…v’chaper – “And Moshe said to Aaron, ‘Approach the altar…and atone” (Vayikra 9:7)

Rashi explains that Aaron was afraid and embarrassed to approach the Altar. Moshe responded, “Why are you embarrassed? For this you were appointed!”

Two questions can be posed here on Rashi. Why was Aaron embarrassed? And how did Moshe’s answer to him help?

The Ben Ish Chai explains why Aaron was both embarrassed and afraid. The korbanos of that day were to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf. Since Aaron was unintentionally involved in the making of the calf, he first had to bring a korban for himself, and he was embarrassed. He was also afraid that other Leviim might use the fact that Aaron was involved in the sin to undermine his authority, like Korach later did.

However, with just 2 words (L’kach nivcharta – for this you were chosen), Moshe changed Aaron’s perspective. Moshe knew that, rather than being a handicap, it is essential that a leader have some sort of embarrassing episode in his past, so that he does not become arrogant around his fellows.

Skeleton in the Closet

The source of this idea is in the Talmud (Yoma 22b). Chazal explain why King David’s royal dynasty will last all the way until Mashiach, as opposed to King Shaul’s, which ended. David’s lineage was “controversial” – his maternal grandmother, Ruth, was a Moabite convert. The Torah states that a man from Moav may not convert to Judaism, and there was great debate among the rabbis about whether a Moabite woman may enter the Jewish nation (the halacha is that she may). Also, because of his different hair color and other reasons for suspicion, his brothers rejected him and called him a mamzer, and he was relegated to the role of shepherding in places where he was in danger of attack by wild animals. Because of all this, David remained humble and never felt that he deserved to be a King.

King Shaul on the other hand, had a perfectly respectful background and complexion to be a leader. Therefore, the Talmud concludes that we only appoint a leader who has a “Kupa shel Sheratzim” – some type of background and past that will remind him “go back to where you belong” if he gets haughty.

Moshe told Aaron that, especially as Kohen Gadol, his sin wasn’t something to be embarrassed about, and was no cause for fear. In fact, it was his ticket to being a successful leader! Any of the other Leviim wouldn’t have qualified for this position because the entire tribe remained clean.

This is a phenomenal perspective which can be perceived from many viewpoints. First, a lesson can be derived about the importance of humility as a leader. This can only be brought about by someone who recognizes that he is not worthy. This is the exceptional trait of Jews – to be baishanim (modest). Modesty is not a social handicap; it means recognition of where one’s place is.

Bumpy Road to Priesthood

Another concept that can be derived is that even failure and weaknesses can be “traded in” for assets and strengths after proper recognition of faulty judgment. Repentance can only work when one realizes that he can actually turn his weaknesses into strengths. When one does not recognize this, he still might see himself as an eternally doomed sinner. Even after he comes to terms with his faults and he goes through the proper elements of change and repentance, he will still feel he has a skeleton in the closet which can’t have proper burial. This type of behavior is destructive and counter-productive.

By merely focusing on one’s past misbehavior, one does not gain the power to stand up against a future tide of nisyonot or to release himself from a guilty, negative mindset. There was truth to Aaron’s feelings that his mistake left him unworthy of being a leader. However, a more positive belief and perception would have been to take this opportunity to learn how to empathize with others who have made mistakes and want to repent.

Fulfilling Phylacteries

Consider the following parable: Morris, an observant Jew, wore tefillin every day. When he was eighty years old, he decided to have his tefillin checked to see if they were kosher. One day, a well-known sofer passed through his town and put up a stand in shul offering to check tefillin. To his dismay, Morris discovered that his tefillin were pasul (not kosher).Understandably, Morris was beside himself. He approached his Rav with a choked voice and watery eyes, unable to accept the bitter news that he had never properly fulfilled the mitzvah of tefillin. The Rav suggested that Morris should offer to donate money for others to get their tefillin checked and fixed for free, and that he should donate kosher tefillin to Bar Mitzvah boys who either didn’t have the money or didn’t understand the importance of having kosher tefillin. Instead of focusing on what he couldn’t do anything about anymore, Morris found in this piece of advice a way to rectify his loss and ensure that when he returned his soul to his Creator, it would be with the merit of having helped many other people to wear kosher tefillin for the rest of their lives.

Contaminated Water Purification

A few years back on Erev Sukkos, a Rebbe for Chassidic Yerushalmi cheder boys told me something he had taught to his students in Meah Shearim on the topic of the joy of Simchat Beit HaShoeva. On Rosh Hashana, there is a minhag to do tashlich – we shake out our pockets to rid ourselves of our sins that we worked to get rid of throughout Elul. This behavior is out of fear of our sins on the Day of Judgment. Sukkos, however, is a time for teshuva m’ahava (repentance out of love). Therefore, we make great celebrations while drawing the water into which we threw our sins. Teshuva M’Ahava turns our sins into merits. We want those waters back so that we can get merits out of them by using the proper methods to change ourselves and purify our deeds. We exchange pain for power, past for future and negative experience for positive lessons and self-awareness.

Moshe taught Aaron how to find the positives in everything, even in his own mistakes. We can experience great simcha and transform ourselves if we can internalize this message as well!

Shabbat Shalom

In memory of Reuven ben Sarah

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