Hamaayan / The Torah Spring
Edited by Shlomo Katz
Shemini: Do What's Right
Volume XVI, No. 25
24 Nissan 5762
April 6, 2002
Orach Chaim 621:5-622:1
Daf Yomi (Bavli): Bava Batra 17
Daf Yomi (Yerushalmi): Ma'asrot 13
In this parashah, we read how two of Aharon's sons died during
the dedication of the mishkan. Aharon concluded that his family
members' status as onenim (mourners before the burial of the
deceased) precluded them from eating one of the sacrifices of the
day. Aharon finished his argument with the rhetorical question
(10:19): "Hayitav be'ainai Hashem" / "Would it be right in G-d's
eyes [to eat of the sacrifice]?"
R' Shalom Noach Brazovsky z"l (the Slonimer Rebbe; died 2000)
notes that Aharon did not say, "Would it be right in the eyes of
the Torah?" or "Would it be right in the eyes of halachah?"
Besides keeping the letter of the law - even about something that
is not explicitly prohibited by the Torah - a person must ask
himself: Would it be right?
And what is "right"? It is that which brings man closer to
Hashem. [Of course, only something that is permitted by the Torah
can bring one closer to G-d.] There is a well-known story of the
convert who wanted to learn the entire Torah while standing on
one foot. The sage Hillel told him, "That which is hateful to
you do not do to your friend." Is this the "whole" Torah? many
ask. It is, says R' Brazovsky. "Your friend" means Hashem, and
the purpose of the whole Torah is to bring man closer to Him.
That which is not "hateful," i.e., destructive, to your
relationship with Hashem is "right." (Netivot Shalom:
Introduction to Breishit)
"The sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire
pan, they put fire in them and placed incense upon it; and
they brought before Hashem an alien fire that He had not
commanded them. A fire came forth from before Hashem and
consumed them, and they died before Hashem." (10:2-3)
Rashi quotes the Midrash: "Rabbi Yishmael said, `They died
because they entered the Sanctuary intoxicated by wine'."
This requires explanation on several levels. Firstly, the
Torah tells us why Nadav and Avihu died - they entered the
mishkan with "an alien fire that He had not commanded them"! Why
does Rabbi Yishmael offer a different reason? Secondly, how is
it possible that these great tzaddikim entered the mishkan drunk?
Indeed, why would they have been drunk at this time?
R' Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter z"l (1847-1905; the Gerrer Rebbe)
explains as follows: Nadav and Avihu were not drunk, but they had
imbibed some alcohol. They did this because a small amount of
alcohol can enhance a person's feelings, and they wanted to
enhance their closeness to Hashem on this holy day of the
dedication of the mishkan. They erred, however, for a kohen who
serves in the mishkan before G-d should not enhance his
experience with outside influences. Rather, his "spiritual high"
and his closeness to Hashem should come from the Divine service
This is what the verse means when it says that they brought the
incense with an "alien fire that He had not commanded them." The
kohen should be motivated by Hashem's command and nothing else.
On another occasion, R' Alter quoted his grandfather, R'
Yitzchak Meir Alter z"l (the "Chiddushei Harim"; 1799-1866) who
explained that the Torah's emphasis is on the phrase "that He had
not commanded them." They key to any mitzvah is the fact that it
is G-d's command. Even if a person doesn't know the reason for
the mitzvah, the main thing is to do Hashem's Will. The younger
R' Alter added: This is the meaning of the verse (Shir Hashirim
1:2), "For Your friendship is dearer than wine." Closeness to
Hashem is achieved primarily by obeying His command, not by
appreciating the sweet taste (the "wine") of the mitzvot.
Indeed, this is why we recite a blessing before performing a
mitzvah, stating that: "He has sanctified us through His
commandments, and has commanded us to [perform this mitzvah]."
(Sefat Emet: Years 5648 & 5639)
"Speak to Bnei Yisrael, saying: `These are the creatures
that you may eat from among the animals that are upon the
R' Joseph B. Soloveitchik z"l (1903-1993) observes: The laws of
the permitted and forbidden animals are chukim / decrees. The
gemara (Yoma 67b) describes chukim as "commandments with which
the evil inclination and heathens find fault because they seem to
be beyond human comprehension." There are other laws, called
mishpatim, which we would have observed even if they had not been
commanded by G-d, because they conform with basic concepts of
morality and justice. Examples of these are the prohibitions on
bloodshed and robbery.
In reality, says R' Soloveitchik, the force of the Divine
command applies to both chukim and mishpatim, demanding
observance of, and unqualified commitment to, both. We can
understand that a chok demands total submission without
reservations. Just as a patient takes a prescription on faith,
without understanding the chemical or biological processes that
make the medicine effective, so must we observe the chukim. We
may seek to understand and to make inquiries, but ultimately, we
must accept G-d's command on faith.
The word "chok" comes from the root which means "to engrave."
The chok is characterized by perpetual validity and is "graven in
the rock forever" (paraphrasing Iyov 19:24). G-d taught this
lesson when He engraved the Ten Commandments in stone, for stone
conveys the notion of stability and permanence. And, Moshe
smashed the tablets when he saw that Bnei Yisrael's commitment
was not permanent.
[It is noteworthy that virtually all of the so-called "Ten
Commandments" are not chukim, but rather are mishpatim.] The
Torah does not assign separate sections of Scripture to chukim
and mishpatim. They are interspersed throughout the Torah. We
make no distinctions between the two as regards the quality and
totality of our commitment. Apparently, reason is not a reliable
guide even with respect to mishpatim, for there are borderline
situations that confuse the mind and make the application of
moral norms impossible. Since our intellect must weigh pros and
cons and is slow and deliberate in deciding, society starts to
nibble away at the edges of marginal, borderline situations such
as euthanasia and abortion, causing us to violate the mishpatim.
[These are R' Soloveitchik's examples.]
In our modern world, there is hardly a misphat which has not
been repudiated. Stealing and corruption are accepted norms, and
even much worse behaviors are commonly found in respectable
society. The Torah, therefore, insists that a mishpat be
accepted as a chok. Our commitment must be unshakable,
universally applicable, and upheld even when our reason is
confused. Without this attitude, every social and moral law can
be rationalized away. The Torah therefore enjoins (Vayikra
18:5), "You shall observe My chukim / decrees and My mishpatim /
laws . . . I am Hashem." All observance of laws must be
motivated by the Ratzon Elyon / Divine Will.
(Reflections of the Rav pp.99-105)
"Moshe received the Torah from Sinai, and he transmitted it
to Yehoshua..." (1:1)
Why does the mishnah say "from Sinai" rather than "at Sinai"?
R' Moshe Yechiel Halevi Epstein z"l (the Ozhorover Rebbe in New
York and Tel Aviv; died 1971) explains that Moshe achieved
greatness as a result and in the merit of his humility. Moshe
learned this way of living from Sinai, for Sinai, too, is
described by our Sages as "humble" - it is neither the tallest
mountain nor the most verdant.
Likewise, Yehoshua merited to be Moshe's heir because of his
own humility. Our Sages say, for example, that Yehoshua could be
found in the study hall early in the morning and late at night
arranging the benches. Such self-effacement does not go
(Eish Dat Al Masechet Avot)
R' Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z"l
R' Yosef Dov (Joseph Ber) Soloveitchik was born on 12 Adar 5663
/ 1903 in Pruzhana, Poland. His father, R' Moshe Soloveitchik,
was a son of the famed R' Chaim "Brisker" (founder of the
"Brisker" method of Talmudic analysis), and his mother, Pesia,
was a daughter of the sage R' Elya Feinstein. (Pesia was a first
cousin of R' Moshe Feinstein, as their mothers were sisters.)
Among R' Soloveitchik's other illustrious ancestors were R' Chaim
of Volozhin, R' Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (the "Netziv") and his
namesake, R' Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik (the "Bet Halevi").
In R' Soloveitchik's youth, his father served as rabbi of
Khaslavichy, Belarus, a town inhabited primarily by Lubavitcher
chassidim. R' Soloveitchik related that his cheder teacher in
Khaslavichy would secretly teach the children Tanya (the foremost
work of Lubavitcher philosophy) while a lookout was posted at the
door to warn the children if the elder R' Soloveitchik should
pass by. This early exposure to the teachings of Chabad had a
profound effect on R' Soloveitchik. Eventually, however, the
boy's grandfather, R' Chaim, tested him and realized that he was
not learning gemara. He proposed that R' Moshe teach his son
himself, which R' Moshe did. Together, father and son studied 24
tractates. R' Chaim was overwhelmed by the Torah chiddushim /
novellae that his grandson recorded during this time, and
predicted that his grandson would be a major source of Torah
illumination for the next generation. Similarly, the ordination
certificate which R' Soloveitchik would later receive from R'
Avraham Dov Ber Kahana-Shapiro, rabbi of Kovno, stated in part:
Just like his grandfather, he too is a master of the
entire range of Talmudic literature . . . Happy is the
country that will be privileged to be the home of this
great sage. The sages have ordained him to be the true
interpreter of all religious problems, and the halachah
shall always be in accordance with his rulings.
Another profound influence on the young R' Soloveitchik was his
mother, who exposed her children to secular studies and
literature as she herself had been exposed as a child. R'
Soloveitchik would later go on to study at the Free Polish
University in Warsaw and at the University of Berlin, where he
earned a doctorate in 1932. To be continued...
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