Friday, May 6, 2011

Precautionary Measures

Parshat Emor

by Rabbi Avi Billet

The description of the lighting of the Menorah appears three times in the Torah: in Parshat Tetzaveh (Shmot 27:20-21), in our parsha (24:2-3), and at the beginning of Parshat B'haalotkha (Bamidbar 8:2-4). The contexts are different – the creation of the priestly clothing, one of the Torah's presentations of the holidays, and as a precdent to the purification process of the Levites, respectively.

The B'haalotkha passage is different in that it describes how Aharon will conduct himself "when lighting the candles." The other two passages are very similar to one another, containing a few subtle differences that might even be missed at first glance.

In reference to the candles, Parshat Tetzaveh begins with Moshe being told that "Aharon and his sons will set it up," while in Emor, Moshe is told that "Aharon will set it up." Two questions emerge: Why does God refer to the candles in the singular ("it"), when seven candles need to be set up? Why are Aharon's sons left out in our parsha's instruction?

Regarding the singular form of "setting it up" the Torah Temimah implies from a midrashic passage that it could come to pass that different kohanim could be responsible for different candles. The seven candles could even be lit individually before being inserted into the menorah. As such, Aharon's family were responsible for the set-up of one of the seven candles.

Incredibly, a seemingly inconsequential word presented in the singular form ("אותו - oto") teaches us that for some religious rites, they need not be confined to a single person. There is much room in Jewish life for shared responsibility. For example, no job that is filled by volunteers in a synagogue should be held exclusively by any individual for any lengthy period of time (salaried individuals are a different story). Gabbais, baalei tefillah, Torah readers should be changed around on a regular basis. This is a context where "spreading the wealth" is a good thing. The more that people feel this sense of responsibility, the more they feel involved and significant, the less they will come to despise those who "hog" all the honors.

This seems to contradict our second question. Why are Aharon's sons included in Tetzaveh, but left out of setting up the candles in Parshat Emor? If we're sharing the wealth of serving God, Aharon's sons should certainly be included!

The Meshekh Chokhmah looks at the context of Emor and says that once we're talking about the holidays, which was a special time for the kohen gadol (based on Yerushalmi Chagiga 2:4), it is appropriate to mention the kohen gadol's exclusive role with respect to setting up the menorah.

I think, however, that there is a practical reason Aharon's sons were removed from the clearance list of setting up the menorah. Since the advent of Parshat Tetzaveh, two of Aharon's sons have entered an arena which was actually exclusive to their father, and they paid heavily for their impertinence, losing their lives in the process.

The Baal Haturim suggests (24:3) that Aharon would not allow Elazar or Itamar to enter the sanctuary alone, out of his concern that they would meet a similar fate to their deceased brothers. Once he was there with them, he would obviously have first rights in setting up the menorah.

There is a time and place for everything. Two of Aharon's sons had taken advantage of their right to enter the sanctuary, and applied it to an activity that was out of the confines of the services they could perform: the burning of ketoret. Collective punishment is not always a good idea, but when lives are at stake, as was the case with Aharon's sons, it is sometimes a necessity.

Life consists of peaks, valleys and stops everywhere in between. Sometimes we learn from mistakes to never repeat them, and sometimes precautions are put into place to avoid the problem altogether in the future. Sometimes, out of context, the precautions may even seem silly. Think kitniyos on Pesach, some elements of muktzeh, certain strictures in kashrus supervision, and even some of the laws of yichud.

The people who put these rules in place were not dummies – they knew exactly what they were doing. And we need to understand the rules in context, to realize how much insight into human nature and human psychology they really had. The precautionary rules were put into place to prevent us from violating laws that, from a Torah perspective, should be inviolable.

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