Friday, April 09, 2010

Parshat Shmini - פרשת שמיני

"וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-אַהֲרֹן, קְרַב אֶל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וַעֲשֵׂה אֶת-חַטָּאתְךָ וְאֶת-עֹלָתֶךָ, וְכַפֵּר בַּעַדְךָ, וּבְעַד הָעָם; וַעֲשֵׂה אֶת-קָרְבַּן הָעָם, וְכַפֵּר בַּעֲדָם, כַּאֲשֶׁר, צִוָּה יְהוָה - And Moshe said to Aharon: 'Draw near to the altar, and ryour sin-offering and your burnt-offering, and make atonement for yourself, and for the people; and make the offering of the people and make atonement for them, as Hashem commanded."
(ויקרא ט:ז)

Two parshiot ago, in the opening word of the book of Vayikra, we note how the letter א of the word ויקרא is written in superscript so as to make the word look likeויקר  and then have a small א next to it. The reason Rashi gives there is that Moshe felt that the word ויקרא, he called, which has warm and affectionate connotations, shouldn't be used so that he would not appear to be closer to God than any other person. From that episode we learn that the root letters of that word, קרא, which reappear here, are ones that betray a sense of warmth.

In his commentary on this pasuk, Rashi explains that Aharon was embarrassed and so, calling out affectionately, Moshe gently reminded  his brother that he had no need to feel embarrassed by the command as this was merely his job. The problem is, although this explanation serves us well enough to shed light on why there remains a slight difficulty; it is not entirely clear what it is that causes Aharon to feel so embarrassed.

Picking up on the same issue, Rav Moshe Feinstein writes in D'rash Moshe that the expression that Moshe Rabbeinu uses above, "קְרַב אֶל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ - Draw near to the altar," is an interesting one. Rav Feinstein explains that although Aharon, his sons and all their descendents obviously had no problem in obeying this directive and would surely fulfill this mitzvah, this particular command was quite unlike any other. Aharon and his children were aware that the mitzvot they were commanded to do in conjunction with the Avoda were given to them specifically because they were invested with a higher degree of sanctity that the rest of the Jewish people.

It is for this reason that before the Kohanim bless the congregants in synagogues around the world on Chagim, and daily in Israel, the words אשר קדשנו בקדשתו של אהרן, Who sanctified us with the sanctity of Aharon, are used; these words are not part of the formula of any other blessing, and with good reason. Although the firstborn sons of the Jewish people were originally given the honour of performing the sacrificial service before the Kohanim were formally appointed to fulfill that role, they did not have a similar blessing to recite. The reason is clear; the Kohanim have been invested with a special type of holiness, and that is something that is special and unique to them. The source of this holiness can be traced back to Aharon, the first Kohen Gadol, the very first Kohen ever.

Because of his unique stature and role, Aharon felt ashamed. Not because of any trivial reason, but because it meant his assuming a superior sanctity; something which he did not feel totally at ease with. Seeing this, his brother, Moshe, attempted to both calm him and tell him that this was what God had chosen for him, and that he need not feel embarrassed.

I think we can learn a tremendous amount from this episode. As Jews, we believe that we have a special mission in this role. To that end, we are the recipients of a special type of sanctity; one that sets apart from the other nations of the world, in much the same manner as the Kohanim are set apart from the rest of the Jewish nation. But it is crucial to note that this special attribute is not to be used as a source of excess pride or something to brag about. Similarly, I note two brachot in the morning liturgy; one for males to thank God that they were not 'made' (to translate as accurately as I can) female, and a second one in which both male and female Jews thank God that they were not 'made' non-Jewish.

At first, one might think that these blessings are highly discriminatory and offensive, but that it absolutely not the case. The point in both blessings is that each and every person on this world has their own challenge and that the role that they are tasked with fulfilling is one that is suited to them. There is obviously nothing wrong with being a woman; in fact, we can all agree that a world without women would be a fairly miserable one! The real issue being highlighted is that the person reciting the prayer is referring to the role that he has to play and is thankful for not being given one that he would be entirely unsuited to. In many, many ways, it seems to be a lot harder to be woman than a man, and I only thank God that I was not made a woman. So too with the blessing of being non-Jewish. Just like Aharon was reminded by his brother that he need not be embarrassed by his being mentioned in the Kohanim's blessing, I must understand and readily fulfill my role as a Jew. All the same, it is crucial that I must not let myself become distracted and allow my ego to overtake me; my being a Jew merely means that I am equipped to do a specific job in this world.

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