The opening verses of Behaalotcha seem out of place. Last week’s parsha closed with the story of the offerings of the chiefs of the tribes of Israel as the culmination of the consecration of the Tabernacle. This parsha begins with G-d commanding Moshe: “Tell [Aaron]: when you light the lamps, toward the face of the Menorah should the seven candles [beam their] light” (Numbers 8:2). The next two verses state that Aaron fulfilled his obligation without fail and that the Menorah, of one piece, looked like the image G-d showed Moshe.
This episode belongs in Emor, which we read last month. There (Leviticus 24:1-4), G-d told Moshe to have the Jews prepare pure virgin olive oil with which to kindle the Menorah to inform Aaron how he should arrange the lamps for nightly lighting. In addition, logically G-d should have given the commandments to Aaron before the tribal chiefs opened the Tabernacle for business.
Rashi explains why the verses belong here. They continue the narrative of Naso. Aaron noticed that G-d had looked upon the offerings of the tribal chiefs with such favor that He ordained a separate day for each leader. Aaron realized, too, that his tribe of Levi did not participate in this celebration. G-d had denied Aaron’s tribe its day in the sun. Aaron assumed this snub had to do with him. G-d gave Moshe a message intended to disabuse Aaron of his concern.
Specifically, according to Rashi, who quotes the midrash, G-d said about Aaron, “Your role is greater than theirs, for you prepare and clean the candlesticks [of the Menorah every day.]” The rest of the midrash goes on to say that G-d informed Aaron that the tribal chiefs’ efforts — bringing offerings to inaugurate the Tabernacle — will last only until the destruction of the Temple. Aaron’s contribution — lighting the Menorah — will last forever.
This midrashraises more questions than it answers.
Ezor Eliyahu (Lemberg 1889) asks why Aaron felt slighted. Rashi explained that the tribal chiefs decided to offer the first gifts of the new Tabernacle to make amends for an earlier misjudgment. The chiefs waited too long to donate material for the construction of the Tabernacle. The people had met Moshe’s needs and that left nothing for their leaders. Nothing stopped Aaron from joining his colleagues to step forward at the consecration. He declined; no Divine snub occurred.
One may also ask, why did Aaron’s job of lighting the candles nightly count for more in G-d’s eyes than the expensive gifts the tribal chiefs brought? To buttress Ezor Eliyahu’s point, we read in NasoRashi’s insights into the mystical significance of those offerings. According to the midrash Rashi quotes, the offerings commemorated Adam, Noah, the three Patriarchs, the 70 nations, the Torah, the Ten Commandments, and the 613 mitzvos. How did the High Priest’s job of cleaning the Menorah and lighting the candles top that?
Finally, Ezor Eliyahu asks, how could G-d say that the job of lighting the Menorah will outlast the Temple? Just as the practice of bringing sacrifices ceased, so did the ritual of lighting the candelabra.
The answers to these questions underscore the deeper meaning of the High Priest’s role in preparing and lighting the Menorah.
Ezor Eliyahu explains Aaron’s embarrassment. Recall that in Leviticus (9:7), Moshe had to push his brother to undertake his priestly duties. Rashi explains Aaron’s reluctance. His feeling of unworthiness arose from his role in creating the Golden Calf. Moshe reassured his brother that G-d had called on him and Aaron undertook his role. Here, however, the chiefs of the tribes volunteered their offerings. G-d had not required them. Aaron thought he could not join them, as G-d gave him permission to perform only mandatory rituals.
Ezor Eliyahu continues: Once he saw that G-d had approved of his colleagues’ decision, he felt badly for having shortchanged the tribe of Levi. I suggest that Aaron’s embarrassment could have resulted as well from his realization that he erred in his excessive caution. He should have acted more boldly. G-d had forgiven him and Aaron should have considered the matter closed.
G-d reassured Aaron that his work outweighed that of his colleagues for two reasons. First, he lit the candles and prepared the Menorah every day, while the chiefs performed their duty only once. The significance of Aaron’s duty lay in the fact that it involved boring and dirty work. Also, the nightly lighting occurred out of the spotlight. In contrast, the offering involved the glamour and attention attendant to bringing expensive gifts to the altar.
G-d told Aaron, through Moshe, that the hidden daily grind of religious observance counted more than occasional splashy spectacles.
Second, the midrash says Aaron’s work will continue even after the destruction of the Temple, long after the effect of the chiefs’ offering will have worn off. Ezor Eliyahu explains that the Talmud teaches that Aaron’s lighting the Menorah meant more than illuminating the Jerusalem night. “Did G-d need the light of the Menorah? Rather, [Aaron lit the candles] to symbolize that G-d’s Presence dwells among the Jews.” In contrast, the chiefs brought gifts with a narrower purpose in mind: to ensure that once the public brought sacrifices to the altar, G-d would look favorably on them.
Once the Temple burned down and the rituals of sacrifice stopped, the impact of the chiefs came to an end. In contrast, Aaron’s work remains. Especially when in difficulty, we need constant reminders that G-d maintains His Presence with us.
The midrash should guide graduates on their journey through life. Though modesty has its place, it should not lead to timidity. One should not dwell on shortcomings past the point of Divine forgiveness. On the day after Yom Kippur, we should turn the page. The little things count more than the flashy. Finally, we should work toward the timeless over the temporary.
By Joshua Z. Rokach
Joshua Zev Rokach is gabbai of the Nusach Sefard minyan at Young Israel Shomrai Emunah (YIS™E) in Kemp Mill, Maryland, and former gabbai of the main minyan at YISE and at Kesher Israel in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. He has taught a weekly Talmud class at both synagogues, and has served as an officer and a member of the Board of Directors of both synagogues as well. A retired attorney, Joshua has lived in the Greater Washington area since 1976 and in Kemp Mill since 1986.