Rabbi Naftali Moshe Kassorla
Parshat Shemini 5779
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The D’var Torah for this week is dedicated for the Refuah Shleima of my wife’s cousin Rabbi Sruli Rosenman He has MSRA and has been hospitalized. As of last night the overall prognosis is good but he is not doing well.
Please have in mind Yisrael Meir ben Sarah Geulah in your tefillos
This week's parsha features the incredibly shocking death of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. The inauguration of the Mishkan, a momentous occasion in the history of the Jewish people, is abruptly disturbed by the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, after having brought an אש זרה (“a foreign fire”) upon the altar.
The Torah describes the reaction of Aharon when faced with this decree from G-d: “and Aharon was silent” (Vayikra 10:3). Now plunged into mourning, Aharon accepts this decree without question. The Mefarshim, Sifrei Chassidus and Sifrei Mussar are abound with praise for Aharon’s reaction; his response would serve as a constant source of inspiration for anyone struggling with a Divine decree.
Later on in the parsha, when it came time to bring the daily offerings, a dispute between Moshe and Aharon arose. First some background: Now that Aharon and his sons are in mourning, each is classified halachically as an Onen. [This is the term used to describe one on the day that he loses a close relative. The laws governing an Onen are different, and in some ways more stringent, than those of a mourner during the following days of shivah.] While the Kohen Gadol (Aharon Hakohen) was still obligated to perform the service in the Mishkan even as an Onen, other Kohanim (כהן הדיוט) are prohibited from doing so. However, during the Mishkan’s inauguration, even the other Kohanim were obligated to serve. Included in the service is the eating of the sacrificial meat.
The question which arose was that although Aharon and his sons were obligated to perform the Avodah for the Mishkan’s inauguration, thereby eating the meat from the Korbanot, did this exemption to the law of an Onen allow them to eat from all of the Korbanot? Or were they only permitted to eat from some of the offerings? Moshe was of the opinion that they were commanded to eat from all of the Korbanot, while Aharon believed that the dispensation only applied to specific Korbanot (i.e. the Korbanot classified as “meal-offerings”). Ultimately Aharon acted on his opinion and he and his children only ate from those specific Korbanot.
Moshe is upset by their decision: “And he [Moshe] was wrathful with Elazar and Itamar…why did you not eat the sin-offering in the place of holiness...you should have eaten it in the holy as I had commanded!” (ibid:16-18). Aharon responds: “...Now that such a thing befell me, were I to eat this day’s sin-offering, would Hashem approve?” (Ibid. 19). Upon hearing this, Moshe accepted Aharon’s actions: “Moshe heard and he approved.”
Rashi tells us (quoting from the Gemara in Zevachim 101a) that Moshe’s response is to be praised. For instead of excusing himself by saying that he never heard this halacha from G-d, he admitted outright that: “I have heard, but I forgot it.”
The commentators ask: What are we praising about this response? Would we expect Moshe to lie, saying that he didn't hear this halacha, just in order to save face? Is this really consistent with the esteem that we ascribe to Moshe Rabbeinu? Furthermore, admitting lack of knowledge would be expected from great leaders with stellar traits. Isn’t the fact that we are praising Moshe for admitting that he heard but forgot, a kind of “lowering of the bar” for leadership standards? Why do we seemingly expect so little of Moshe that he is so profoundly praised for this?
The Sefer Shaarei Aharon gives an incredible explanation to this very question which offers an insight about human nature. When one is proven wrong and is faced with the difficult position of admitting defeat, he has three possible options: 1. To stubbornly continue claiming he is right, even though deep down he knows he’s wrong; 2. to admit he’s wrong, begrudgingly; or 3. to approach this excitedly, with the attitude that the person who “bested” him did him a tremendous favor, for they have given him something new to learn.
Moshe Rabbeinu is praised by Chazal for responding on this third level. For he didn’t just admit he was wrong, while still upset with defeat. Rather his whole demeanor connoted his deep appreciation for that which Aharon reminded him. Thus says the Shaarei Aharon.
I would like to take this idea a bit further. If Moshe came with a sincere שמחה that Aharon taught him something he had not heard before, and he was excited to learn something new, he would still have saved face, and surely future generations would laud Moshe for wanting to learn something new - for it is eminently understandable not to know something. Yet, as mentioned previously, Moshe admitted to more than not knowing – he said that he had indeed heard, yet forgot! That is surely not an easy thing to admit. And despite the fact that he had forgotten, he still was appreciative of Aharon’s argument.
Interestingly, when we read the פשוטו של מקרא, nowhere do we find that Moshe actually verbally responded to Aharon’s argument. Yet from the Gemara, we get the impression that he did. How did Chazal see from Moshe’s reaction that וייטב בעיניו really meant “I heard but I forgot”?
Again we see the greatness of Moshe. Perhaps the fact that we learn this from the word בעיניו tells us that the response could be sensed in his eyes. Even if he didn’t verbally respond, his body language said everything! Moshe was so excited at the prospect of being proven wrong, despite his having forgotten, and his demeanor communicated that this wasn’t an impediment to admitting to it. On the contrary – his having forgotten was, in a sense, creating the opportunity to learn it again! His internal feeling was so real and so his excitement at that prospect was clearly communicated to Aharon in the strongest sense.
Moshe teaches us that realizing we are wrong can be an opportunity for growth, and we need not avoid these moments. The ability to admit to it shows true strength of character. For a lack of knowledge isn’t a character flaw, rather it is the refusal to be open to learn something new which shows weakness. We can all rise to the challenge of having the qualities of a great leader. When we do, we will feel the internal joy, and it will be apparent to those around us in every way.