This week we read the parsha of Shemini. "Va'y'hee ba'yom ha'shmini (And
it was on the eighth day) [9:1]." Rashi explains that this was the eighth
day of the consecration of the Mishkan. Whereas during each of the first
seven days, Moshe would build and then disassemble the Mishkan in order to
familiarize himself with it, on this day the Mishkan was erected and
remained as such.
Our parsha then goes on to discuss the sacrifices that were brought on that
day and ultimately the "aish zarah (foreign, uncommanded flame)[10:1]"
brought by Nadav and Avihu, two of Aharon's sons. Two threads of fire
emerged from the Holy of Holies, entered through their nostrils and consumed
their souls. Moshe tells Aharon: "I knew that there would be a
sanctification of the Mishkan through the death of the ones closest to
Hashem and I thought it would be either you or I. Now that this
sanctification has come through them I realize that they were greater than
you and I [Medrash quoted by Rashi 10:3]."
We've explained earlier that, being a composite of a spiritual being and a
physical being, we need to experience events on different realms. Whereas
the 'malach (angel)' of the person was influenced by the revelation of the
Shechina (Hashem's Holy Presence) at the Mishkan, the physical aspect
couldn't be reasoned with. It needed to be frightened by the awesome power
of Hashem. To witness that in the Mishkan, in the presence of Hashem, no sin
would be overlooked, even when performed by the greatest of tzadikim. The
greater the tzadik, the greater the sanctification. Moshe understood that if
they were chosen for the sanctification, then they were the greatest.
We need to understand how they could have been greater than Moshe when we
see that Moshe was chosen to lead the Exodus, to split the sea, to receive
the Torah, etc.
The Talmud [Bava Basra 10:] tells of what we now call a near death
encounter. Rav Yosef the son of Rav Yehoshua was 'dead' for a short period
of time and then was resuscitated. To his fathers question of what did he
see, he responded: "I saw an olam hafuch (an upside down world). The elyonim
('high' people) were low and the tachtonim ('low' people) were high." "You
saw an olam barur (a clear world)!", was his father's response.
Rashi there explains what he saw in the following manner. The people who
were 'high' in this world due to their wealth were in a lowly position in
the next world. The poor who were treated lowly in this world were the
important ones in the next. His father responded that there he saw with
clarity each person's true state.
Rav Moshe Feinstein zt"l asked how could Rav Yosef have called what he saw
in the next world 'upside down'? Isn't it obvious that here in this world,
with our physical eyes, we are very easily misled by the revealed actions of
a person. We see the outer shell. We don't see with clarity. Why did he call
it an upside down world?
He explains the Talmud differently. The true elyonim ('high' people) of this
world were considered to be the elyonim of the next and the tachtonim
('lowly' people) of this world were considered to be the tachtonim of the
next. Yet, these elyonim were lower than the tachtonim! It truly was an olam
hafuch (upside down world)! He couldn't understand why Hashem had arranged
the world of truth in such a fashion.
His father explained that what he had seen was an olam barur (a clear
world). Hashem only demands from a person that which is within that
individual person's ability. Those with lesser abilities and more modest
potential are not expected to 'accomplish' as much as others. If they
maximize their potentials to fulfill the purpose for which they were sent to
this world, even if they'll actually 'accomplish' less - performing less
ma'asim tovim (good acts), studying less Torah - they will truly be the
elyonim in the world of clarity. Those 'high' people who might have
'accomplished' more but where blessed with tremendous abilities which
weren't used to their fullest, those elyonim will be the tachtonim in the
With that we can understand how those who might not have the most auspicious
list of accomplishments might be considered greater than others who boast
such a list. Perhaps, this could explain how Nadav and Avihu were greater
than Moshe and Aharon.
Living in a rather uniform community, I had a relatively rare treat this
past YomTov (holiday). We had received a phone call asking if we'd host a
family for one of the meals. We agreed to do so. Our guests had been brought
up in the former Soviet Union and had emigrated to the United States about
nine years ago when they were in their early thirties. Hearing their story,
getting a sense for the struggles and challenges that they had faced and
still face in their growing observance, and feeling their excitement and
their honesty in regard to their Judaism was truly an exhilarating
experience for my whole family. As he kept referring to me as 'Rabbi', I
kept thinking that here we have a real case of tachtonim being the elyonim
and elyonim being the tachtonim.
One of my Rabbeim z"l had children who were somewhat challenged. Every year
he would devote one of his Friday night talks to discuss these boys. Within
their limited capacities, these two young men are incredibly motivated and
passionate about their Judaism. I often see one sitting in the Beis Medrash
(study hall) with a volume of the Talmud before him, flipping through the
pages, bothered by a question here which is seemingly answered by a later
passage. On the outside, he seems to be studying like all the others. Those
who know him, know that he's simply parroting their actions because there is
nothing more important and precious to him than the incomprehensible books
that lay before him.
This Rav, in his talk, would discuss how Hashem appoints us as parents to
be the guardians of the different neshamos (souls) that he sends to this
world. We have no say in they type of neshama that we are entrusted with. We
t take those children and do as much as we can to help them connect to and
form a true relationship with Hashem. If we can help them to use their
abilities to the fullest then they will be the true elyonim.
This lesson was even more vividly taught to me by his wife, a few weeks
after he had passed from this world. Parents of a former student of mine had
been visiting me. This Rav had also been a Rebbe of this student and had
been instrumental in convincing this student to attend the Yeshiva. I
suggested to the parents that they should go and also visit the Rebbetzin.
They were very hesitant being that it was so close to the death of her
husband. After I had urged them, explaining to them that it would mean a lot
to her, they agreed on the condition that I'd accompany them.
As we were visiting, one of these sons walked out of the shower wearing just
a robe and looking like a total mess. It was clearly a very awkward
situation. Without batting an eyelash, this woman put her arm around his
shoulder, turned to this very wealthy, polished and classy couple and
proudly said: "I'd like to introduce you to my son". She made the
introductions and the conversation then continued.
I was totally blown away. She had such a clear understanding that this child
was Hashem's child. She didn't make him - Hashem did. There was nothing to
be ashamed or embarrassed about. She was now raising this child (alone) to
be a proper servant of Hashem to the best of his abilities. She was doing it
in an extraordinarily successful way.
I believe that for the rest of my life I'll remember her voice proudly
saying: "Mr. and Mrs. ----, this is my son ----". She was wise and
insightful enough to be proud. In her eyes, she was raising a true elyon.