April 17, 2024
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In memory of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, zt”l.

In Parshat Shemini we finally arrive at the moment we have been waiting for. Since Parshat Teruma we have been focused on the construction and inauguration of the Mishkan, all of which was meant to facilitate the Shechina residing within the Jewish people. Parshat Shemini begins with Moshe’s announcement that the anticipated day has finally arrived.1

 

Ziknei Yisrael and Nadav and Avihu

In order to perform the avodha that will generate Divine revelation, Moshe begins the parsha by calling “Aharon, his children, and the ziknei Yisrael (Jewish elders)” to come to the Mishkan.2 His calling of the ziknei Yisrael is surprising. Aharon and his children were needed to perform the avodah; why were the zekeinim summoned? 3

This mention of ziknei Yisrael may be (at least part of) what inspired Chazal’s linkage of Nadav and Avihu’s punishment (described in the parsha’s next perek) to their disrespect of their elders—Moshe and Aharon.

The simple interpretation of the pesukim seems to link their punishment to the fact that they introduced a foreign fire—one that Hashem had not commanded them to bring.4 The end of Sefer Shemot repeatedly emphasized the need to construct the Mishkan as per the exact instructions given by Hashem to Moshe. Similarly, Sefer Vayikra begins by describing the details of the korbanot so that they too can be offered as per Hashem’s directions. Parshat Shemini continues emphasizing this point through the many times it stresses that the day’s avodah needed to be performed as Hashem had commanded.5 Nadav and Avihu were thus out of line by introducing a fire that was “foreign” to Hashem’s command.

The Sifra,6 though, explains that Nadav and Avihu were punished for disrespecting Aharon and not seeking Moshe’s advice. The Gemara7 describes them as having been moreh halacha bifnei rabam—they determined halacha on their own despite being in the presence of their rebbeim, Moshe and Aharon.8 Chazal understood their sin to be not just what they did, but how they related to Moshe and Aharon.

 

Filling The Gaps

Moshe’s summoning of the ziknei Yisrael aimed to emphasize their central role in decision-making regarding the avodah in the Mishkan. Hashem’s explicit instructions do not aim to cover all questions or scenarios that will inevitably arise. The ziknei Yisrael are the ones meant to fill in these gaps.

The Sifra9 understood the end of Perek 9 as just such a situation. Despite having fulfilled the avodah as instructed by Moshe, Aharon was unsuccessful in causing the Shechina to appear and did not know how to rectify the situation. Heeding the implication of Moshe’s summons of the ziknei Yisrael, Aharon turned to Moshe to ask for his advice and assistance. Only once Moshe joined Aharon in prayer to Hashem did Hashem’s fire appear. Aharon’s avodah was not enough to bring the Shechina. He needed Moshe Rabbeinu’s involvement as well. This is why, after beginning by emphasizing the importance of following Hashem’s instructions,10 the parsha continues by emphasizing the need to heed those of Moshe Rabbeinu as well.11

The same Sifra presents the background to Nadav and Avihu’s sin in a very similar way.12 They too had been involved in the avodah and were trying to figure out how to get the Shechina to appear. The difference between them and their father Aharon is that they consulted no one.13 They decided that bringing their own fire was the right way forward and proceeded as such. The issue was not just what they did, but the fact that they did not consult with Moshe, Aharon or the ziknei Yisrael.

The results could not have been more different. After consulting with Moshe (and with his assistance), Aharon successfully brought Hashem’s fire to consume the korbanot. Nadav and Avihu, who acted without first seeking guidance or assistance, were consumed by the same fire.

Parshat Shemini teaches us that we fulfill Hashem’s will by following His commands and then filling in the missing details by consulting with ziknei Yisrael. Commenting on Moshe’s summons of the ziknei Yisrael, the Midrash compares the reliance of the Jewish people on their zekeinim to a bird’s dependency on its wings. “Just as a bird cannot fly without its wings, so the Jewish people cannot accomplish anything without their elders.”14 Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook15 explains that people naturally aim to fly, to transcend mundane life—but this is hard to accomplish. We look to our elders to provide inspiration and direction so that we can successfully take flight.

 

Our Generation

The need to seek direction from ziknei Yisrael has always been important; it is even more important in our generation. First, the quickly-developing modern world raises many questions about what we should accept and integrate within Judaism and what we ought to avoid. Second, we live in a generation that has a natural aversion to authority figures. People have the mistaken impression that we should use our own sentiments about right or wrong to make decisions about Torah and halacha.

It is critical that we internalize Parshat Shemini’s message of the importance of turning to ziknei Yisrael for direction on how to serve Hashem.

 

Rav Chaim Kanievsky, zt”l

Rav Chaim Kanievsky, zt”l, was just such a zakein. Hundreds of thousands of people attended his levaya partly because of the Torah, brachot, direction and advice he offered to individuals and organizations from all corners of Jewish society and from around the world over the past decades. His knowledge of kol haTorah kulah gave him unique insight as one of the ziknei hador.

Our loss of such a zakein should motivate each one of us to reflect on the importance of strengthening our relationships with Torah personalities who can provide us with the Torah guidance we need to reach the heights to which we have the potential to fly.


Rabbi Reuven Taragin is the dean of overseas students at Yeshivat HaKotel.

1 Vayikra 9:4.

2 Vayikra 9:1.

3 Chazal (quoted by Rashi) explain that it was important for the zekeinim to know that Aharon was entering the Kodesh Hakodashim with Moshe’s permission and at his request. Why did the ziknei Yisrael have to know this? The thesis put forward by this piece answers this question.

4 Vayikra 10:1 with the commentary of the Or Hachayim, Rav Hirsch, and the Sefat Emet (641). See also Devarim 12 and 17:3 and Yirmiya 7:31. See also Netziv Vayikra 9:6.

5 Vayikra 9:6, 7,  10.

6 Sifra, Shemini, Mechilta D’Miluim.

7 Eruvin 63.

8 Other midrashim go even further in presenting their offering of ketoret as a rebellion against Moshe and Aharon, or an expression of being mezalzel Moshe and Aharon.

9 Sifra, Shemini, Mechilta D’Miluim.

10 Vayikra 9:6, 7, 10.

11 Vayikra 9:21 and 10:5, 7, 13, 18, 20. See Perek 10, which intentionally blurs the lines between the two ideas.

12 Note the similar language of the two pieces in the Sifra.

13 The Sifra (Shemini, Mechilta D’Miluim) emphasizes that they did not consult each other as well.

14 Vayikra Rabba 11:8.

15 Eder Hayakar 1:21.

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