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25.03.2019 20:40    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  vayikra  shemini  

Observing the Commandments and Human Behavior


Observing the Commandments and Human Behavior

The beginning of chapter 10 in this week’s reading is instructive regarding the end of the chapter, while the end sheds light on the beginning.  From beginning and end together we can reach some important conclusions regarding the proper way to observe the commandments, both those concerning our relationship with G‑d and those concerning our relationship with other human beings.  We shall make this point clear by comparing the beginning of the chapter with the end:


Chapter 10:1-4

Chapter 10:16-20

The event

They offered before the Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them.

Then Moses inquired about the goat of sin offering, and it had already been burned!

The response

And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died before the Lord.

He was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar,…and said, “Why did you not eat the sin offering in the sacred I commanded?”

The explanation

This is what the Lord meant when He said:  Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.

See, this day they brought their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, and such things have befallen me!  Had I eaten sin offering today, would the Lord have approved?

How the explanation was received

And Aaron was silent.

And when Moses heard this, he approved.


Both instances concern failure to observe a commandment perfectly.  In the first instance, something superfluous was added and in the second, part of the commandment was not carried out.  The former indicates the need to follow divine commands absolutely without any possibility of factors beyond the commandment coming into play, for such would be “alien fire.”  The latter points to an additional aspect of observing the commandments:  taking into consideration the motivation of the person performing the commandment.  Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, acted as they did for personal reasons, whereas the central thrust in the laws of sacrifice is to aspire to closeness to the Lord by doing His will as embodied in these commandments.

The end of the chapter indicates that a person can listen to his own inner sense and in certain situations, when absolute objective obedience seems to him to mar observance of the commandment, a person may draw his own personal conclusions.  Aaron thought it was inappropriate to insist that he and his sons eat sin offering on the day their dear ones were killed, because eating the offering should be accompanied by a thrill of rejoicing on the part of the person offering the sacrifice and not defined simply as a technical action.  Hence, if he was not capable of rejoicing in the wake of what had happened to him, he was exempt from eating the offering.[1] Clearly Aaron’s actions should not be taken as a case from which to draw general overall conclusions, rather as an additional aspect of performing the commandment.

The verses at hand also teach us a lesson regarding interpersonal relations.  One can hardly fail to note the way Aaron and Moses reacted to the explanations they were each given.  Aaron, received the Lord’s harsh response in silence and without complaint, while Moses, exercising his authority as the spokesman for G‑d’s commands, rebuked Aaron with the words, “as I commanded.”  The Sages related to this in several contexts, some of which we shall present below.

Leviticus Rabbah (12.2, Margaliyot ed., pp. 256-257), says:

When Aaron’s two sons went in to make an offering and came out burned, Moses said to Aaron:  “My brother, your sons died for none other than to sanctify the Name of the Holy one, blessed be He.”…Likewise, we have:  There I will meet with the Israelites, and it shall be sanctified by My Presence (Ex. 29:43).  This was spoken to Moses at Sinai, and was not understood by him until it befell him…He said to Aaron:  “My brother, at Sinai, I was told that I would sanctify this House, and through a great man would I sanctify it, and I thought that either through me or through you would this House be sanctified, but now [I see that] your two sons are greater than you or I.”  When Aaron heard that his sons had been G‑d-fearing, he remained silent, and was rewarded for his silence.

The homilist went further than stressing the ethical fact that a person’s obligation to perform the commandments punctiliously is directly related to the privileges given him by G‑d, or the fact that the Lord is sanctified by those close to Him; he went on to address the personal aspect, stressing the ways Moses found to touch the heart of his brother who had just lost two of his sons.

Avot de-Rabbi Nathan (Version A; p. 56 in the Schechter ed.) says:

And should not interrupt the words of his fellow (Avot 5.9)—this refers to Aaron, for it is written, “Aaron spoke to Moses, ‘See, this day…,’” but he remained silent until Moses had finished what he had to say and did not say to him:  Make it short…Some say that Aaron took [Moses] aside and said to him:  Moses, my brother, if an onen (bereaved whose dead has not yet been buried) is forbidden to eat of the tithe, which is of lesser holiness, all the more so he should be forbidden the sin offering, which is of greater holiness.  He thanked him forthwith.

The same gentle response that Moses used towards Aaron in his moment of tragic loss served his brother Aaron when Moses expressed anger at his sons (and, according to the continuation of the text, also at Aaron himself).  Maintaining good manners even when seething with anger is an extremely valuable trait when it comes to interpersonal relations.

Elsewhere, we find appreciation of Moses for the modesty he displayed (Zevahim 101a):  “He admitted his error and did not say:  I had not heard it, to cover his shame; rather he said:  I heard it and forgot it.”  The Sages, however, also criticized Moses for his anger.  Torah CohanimShemini (ch. 2, par. 12) says:

Rabbi Yehudah said:  Honiah ben Yehudah used to expound his whole life:  Rigid punctiliousness caused Moses to err.  After his death I answer him: who caused him to be so punctilious?  Rather, he was in error.

Sifre 48 ( Num. 31:21) says:

Moses, because he would get angry, came to err.  Rabbi Eliezer says:  In three instances he got angry and erred.  Firstly (Lev. 10:16): “He was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s remaining sons,” and what did he say (loc. cit.):  Why did you not eat the sin offering in the sacred area?”

Likewise, secondly (Num. 20:10):  “He said to them, ‘Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?’” and what does it say (loc. cit.)?  “And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod.”  Here, too, thirdly (Num. 31:14):  “Moses became angry with the commanders of the army” and what does it say (loc. cit.)?  “Eleazar the priest said to the troops…”  Because he became angry, he fell into error.

Both of the above sources emphasize how great the shortcoming of anger, which is likely to cause even the greatest person to fail, such as Moses who by his anger was led to mistaken and sometimes even fateful decisions.  The Sages reached their conclusion from close observation of what is written in the Torah, which describes several of Moses’ reactions before becoming leader of the people, such as when he smote the Egyptian, and also as the people’s leader, as in the episodes mentioned above or in the affair of Korah and his following (Num. 16:15).

So we see how the Sages considered the events described at the beginning and end of chapter 10 in this week’s reading, and how they discerned fine ethical points that the Torah sought to stress in order to educate us in their light:  both to be civil and proper in our dealings with our fellows and to worship the Lord by carefully observing His commandments in full detail and with sensibility.

The structure of the chapter and its content complement one another, bringing out the underlying ethical ideas.

* Dr. Barkai is head of Lifshitz Teachers' College. These words are written in gratitude and praise and thanks to God for the recovery of our beloved grandchildren, Ohad Hayim and Ravid of the house of Levi, may God extend their lives in goodness and their years in comfort, and in heartfelt blessings to our oldest granddaughter, dear Keren, in honor of her upcoming Bat Mitzvah.

[1] A similar notion is at play regarding the bridegroom who is exempt from reciting Shema on his wedding day, because he is too excited to perform the commandment with proper concentration.

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