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Judaism: Weekly Lecture: Cautionary Closeness

Why did Aaron hesitate to perform the service at the altar, and how did Moses convince him to move forward?
Published: Thursday, March 20, 2014 10:44 AM


Summary of shiur written by Channie Koplowitz Stein

With the completion of the Mishkan, the time had come to put it to its intended use, as the place where the altar was erected and the kohanim could offer the sacrifices. Moses instructs Aaron and his sons to bring the sin and elevation offerings. “This is the thing that Hashem has commanded you to do; then the glory of Hashem will appear to you.” It seems that Aaron hesitated, for Moses again addresses him saying, “Come near to the Altar and perform the service of your sin offering and your elevation offering and provide atonement for yourself and for them, as Hashem has commanded.” Only after this second urging does Aaron come near the Altar and perform the service.

Two obvious questions present themselves: Why did Aaron hesitate to perform the service, and how did Moses convince him to move forward?

Rashi writes that Aaron hesitated because he was ashamed. About what? Rabbi Reiss in Meirosh Tzurim cites Ramban and explains that when Aaron saw the horns of the Altar, he remembered the sin of the golden calf in which he had participated. Having his sin so obviously present before him made Aaron feel unworthy of performing this exalted service before Hashem. Moses therefore urged him forward, telling him that Hashem had already forgiven him that sin, and it was time to move forward to the next stage, to submission to His will and perform the service according to His command. 

Rabbi Schlesinger, in Eleh Hadvarim, jars our sensibility with an even more fundamental question. How did Hashem allow such a great righteous person to stumble and be implicated in such an overwhelming sin, a sin which he initially stood up against? Citing the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Schlesinger provides tremendous insight into the primary function of the priesthood. That purpose was to bring the rest of us closer to Hakodosh Boruch Hu and to atone for our sins.

In order for the priest to do that effectively, explains Rabbi Schlesinger, he himself needs to experience the sin and ask for his own forgiveness as well. Then, when Aaron pleads for forgiveness for the people, he is acting as one of them. This detail, continues Rabbi Schlesinger, is the difference between the offering of Aaron and those of Nadav and Avuihu who brought a strange offering to Hashem, for they brought it in their personal fire pans, not as part of the people, the Klall. Thus Aaron becomes the model of repentance for the sin of the golden calf and for repentance for sin in general. 

But Aaron is a model not just for that generation and that sin, but also a model for all of us as we approach Hashem with our prayers, cautions Rabbi Beyfus in Yalkut Lekach Tov. Our lives are like a tightrope, writes Rabbi Yaakov Hillel, and we must be forever mindful of each step we take so that we can maintain our balance  and move forward while still maintaining a healthy fear of Hashem and distance from sin. We must be watchful and alert, weighing our actions, for we carry within ourselves our priceless souls. 

In this vein, Rabbi Mordechai Druck in Drash Mordechai sees this kind of shame before the Creator as a healthy shame, for it keeps us aware and leads us to take responsibility for our actions. 

There was yet another message Moses was relating to his brother. This was the only sin Aaron had committed, yet it was constantly in his consciousness. What Moses was telling Aaron and which serves as a message for all generations, according to Rabbi Epstein, was that even though we sin, through the process of teshuvah, Hashem is quick to embrace us again. That’s why the atonement of Yom Kippur is followed each year with Succoth where we reestablish our intimate relationship with Hashem.

As Rabbi Meisels reminds us, even though we have sinned, we must never despair of Hashem’s love for us. The realization and shame of our sin should not paralyze us, and we must ever try to move closer to Hakodosh Boruch Hu. 

We can nevertheless approach Aaron’s embarrassment from a different direction. Rabbi Reiss,  quoting a second view of the Ramban, points to this embarrassment as proof of Aaron’s great humility and as the reason for his being chosen for this position. In contrast, Nadav and Avihu took their greatness instead of humility to heart, brought an unauthorized offering, and died as a result.

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin understands the importance of humility, but he cautions us against using that sense of unworthiness as a crutch that prevents us from worthy accomplishments, especially since a truly humble person understands his limitations and will willingly listen to criticism and accept help from others. 

As Aaron was chosen to be Priest, so are we all a Kingdom of Priests, reminds us Rabbi Reiss. That realization must instill in us awe and humility, for Hashem has entrusted us to be a light unto the nations. Our gifts, whether to enlighten the nations or to help each other, are all gifts from God. Especially when we are appointed to a high position, points out Rabbi Gamliel Rabinowitz in Tiv Hamoadim. We must recognize that that appointment too is a gift from Hashem, and humility here is counterproductive. If you are the most capable, step up as Aaron did, and accept your responsibility.

Along these lines, writes Rabbi Henoch Leibowitz in The Majesty of Man, Aaron was able to control his emotions of fear and awe, focus on the tasks at hand, and perform them with enthusiasm and fervor. It is a myth, he writes, citing the Rambam, that we cannot control our emotions.

It is precisely the emotion of despair after having sinned that the Satan focuses on after he’s accomplished the first part of his mission, after he’s brought us to sin, writes Rabbi Mordechai Ezrachi in Bircas Mordechai. Not content with having brought us to sin, the evil inclination, yetzer horo, wants to keep us in a state of despair so that we would never feel God’s love again and not be able to move forward. When Aaron felt this way, Moses reassured him. You will be successful, he said, first because God has already forgiven you and also because if God chose you for this task, He has also given you all the tools you need to complete it successfully.

The Ohr Doniel adds another dimension to our discussion. Whatever trait the yetzer horo chooses to keep us from moving forward in our relationship with Hakodosh Boruch Hu, that is the exact character trait we must work on to perfect in ourselves. When, according to Rashi, Moses’s response to Aaron’s sense of shame was, “Move forward, ki lekach nivcharta – for this very reason were you chosen,” Moses was telling him that this was Aaron’s challenge, that Hashem wants him to overcome this feeling and move forward in service to Him.

Similarly, continues the Ohr Doniel, when we are faced with challenges, we too must understand that working through this personal challenge will become the source of our strength, as it did for Aaron Hakohen.

As the Slonimer Rebbe points out in Netivot Shalom, not only our gifts and talents, but also our challenges and difficult situations were tailor made for our spiritual growth on the stage of our physical life. 

How are we to keep from falling into despair and work toward achieving our God given potential? Rabbi Orlowick, in Turning Ideas into Action teaches a twofold process of patience and persistence. Most worthwhile things take time to accomplish, and to keep motivated, one must learn to celebrate the small achievements along the way. First, the small achievements eventually add up to a large achievement, and secondly, the “small” achievement may in fact be larger than you think. By consistent persistence and patience, you will move ever closer to fulfilling your mission and actualizing your potential. Each small, doable change moves you up another rung on the ladder. 

The few words with which Moses urged Aaron onward serve as a lesson for all of us to harness our feelings of shame and humility and use them towards connecting with others and with Hakodosh Boruch Hu, for if Hashem has put a task before us, we must know that Hashem has also given us all the tools we need to succeed. May we learn from Aaron to accept our tasks and fulfill them with love.

hear audio at http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/810496/Mrs-_Shira_Smiles/Shemini-_Cautionary_Closeness_