Parshas Shemini begins with the pasuk “And it was on the eighth day, Moshe called to Aharon and his sons and to the Elders of Israel.” [Vayikra 9:1] In Parshas Tzav we learned about the Seven Days of Miluim. During these seven ceremonial days of the inauguration of the Mishkan, Moshe Rabbeinu acted as the Kohen Gadol. This was the only time in his life that Moshe acted as High Priest – during that week he had the status of a High Priest. Now it is the eighth day, following this seven day period. Moshe called to Aharon and his four sons to invest them and their descendants with the status of Kehuna for the rest of eternity.
The Alschich writes a very interesting idea. He says that during the Seven Days of Miluim, Moshe saw that the Shechina (Divine Presence) did not rest upon his actions, and that fire did not descend from Heaven until the eighth day. In other words, the entire week that Moshe Rabbeinu was acting as a Kohen, the Presence of the Ribono shel Olam did not appear in the Mishkan. The miraculous descent of fire from Heaven and the appearance of the Shechina in the Mishkan only took place “B’yom haShemini.” Until then, in effect, the Mishkan was an Empty House, bereft of G-d’s Presence.
The Alshich wonders why that was so. He answers that the Almighty was getting back at Moshe Rabbeinu, so to speak, measure for measure for Moshe’s hesitancy to accept his mission to lead the Jews out of Egypt. This was “pay-back time” in which HaKadosh Baruch Hu was basically giving Moshe a little slap on the wrist.
For seven days, when the Ribono shel Olam asked Moshe to take the Jews out of Mitzrayim, Moshe refused. There was an ongoing conversation that lasted for seven days, until Moshe Rabbeinu finally accepted the job. Albeit, it was for noble reasons that Moshe hesitated. It was his humility and his fear of offending his older brother. But, nevertheless, he said “No” to the Almighty for seven days.
G-d told Moshe, “Don’t worry! I will be with you.” [Shemos 3:12] Yet, it was not until the eighth day that Moshe finally agreed. The Alshich says we are witness here to the exquisite Justice of the Almighty: Measure for Measure. “You didn’t want to come with Me for seven days; now I will not be in the Mishkan with you for seven days. Just like you refused to accept your mission until I acquiesced that Aharon would be your spokesman, so too, now the Shechina will not come to the Mishkan until Aharon takes over on the eighth day.” Midah k’neged Midah!
I saw this vort of the Alshich quoted in a sefer by a Rav Aharon Pessin, entitled Midah k’neged Midah, which catalogs every place in the entire Torah where we find examples of “Measure for Measure” justice.
What is ironic—actually perplexing—is that there is a Ba’al HaTurim on this week’s parsha that says something which seems to be the polar opposite of what the Alshich says.
The Ba’al HaTurim (in his trademark style) writes that “B’yom HaShemini Karah Moshe” is equal in Gematria to “Haya b’Yom Rosh Chodesh Nissan” (the words ‘On the eighth day Moshe called’ are numerically equivalent to ‘It was on the first day of the month of Nissan’). He then goes on to say that because Moshe Rabbeinu refused to listen (initially) to the Ribono shel Olam, and stalled for seven days by the Burning Bush before accepting his mission, he was now rewarded by being given the opportunity to serve as Kohen Gadol—but only for seven days. This implies that had Moshe Rabbeinu only refused for one day, he would have only served for one day. Had he refused for two weeks, he would have been the Kohen Gadol for two weeks. Since he refused for seven days, at least he got to serve as Kohen for seven days!
This apparently is the polar opposite of what the Alshich said. The Baal HaTurim implies that Moshe was rewarded for his refusal, while the Alshich explained that he was being punished for it!
Rav Simcha Zissel Brody doesn’t quote the Alshich, but he does comment on this Ba’al HaTurim. He says this is an example of the exquisite justice of the Ribono shel Olam. Mortal judges can dispense justice, but it is imperfect. If one puts someone in jail for twenty years for his crime, then his wife suffers, his children suffer, many innocent parties may suffer. The Ribono shel Olam doesn’t do it that way. HaTzur Tamim P’a’alo (The Rock, perfect are His actions) [Devorim 32:4] Rav Simcha Zissel says that in Moshe’s refusal to accept his mission from Hashem, we find something that was noble and something that was punishable. On the one hand (as Ramban explains) Moshe refused because he didn’t want to embarrass his older brother, Aharon. He refused also because of his humility. All this was noble. The Ribono shel Olam said “You have to be rewarded for that. You do something good—you are guaranteed reward.
But on the other hand, though Moshe may have been doing this for noble reasons, still, when the Ribono shel Olam tells you “Go” — you go. If you don’t go then: “You don’t want to come with Me? I am not going to come with you.” It cuts two ways.
There is only one Being in the entire cosmos that can do that. That is the Ribono shel Olam. Only He can administer precise Divine Justice such that the same act which was simultaneously both a good thing and something that was not right will be compensated by something which is at the same time both a reward and a punishment. Moshe was rewarded by being allowed to be a Kohen Gadol for seven days. His punishment was that there was no Shechina present while he served in the Mishkan. “You didn’t come with Me; I am not going to come with you.”
So much of what we do in life contains elements of both good and bad. People are conflicted. They do things which are at the same time both very good and not so good. The Ribono shel Olam will be able to discern and mete out the proper Justice, administering both the proper reward and proper punishment, because HaTzur Tamim P’a’alo.
A Homiletic Lesson From a Halachic Authority
I came across a homiletic insight on the parsha which I found attributed to a very unlikely source. I suspect no one will guess in a hundred years who said the following vort, which is a very beautiful homiletic thought but one which one would not expect to hear from this authority, who is known for halachic expertise rather than sermonic material.
In this week’s parsha we have the signs of the kosher animals, the non-kosher birds, and the kosher fish. The two signs of a kosher fish are fins and scales. All fish have fins, but not all fish have scales. The Gemara [Kiddushin 29a] quotes a Tanaic source which states that a father has five obligations towards his son: To circumcise him, to redeem him (if he is a ‘peter rechem‘), to teach him Torah, to marry him off, and to teach him a profession. The Talmud then quotes an alternate opinion that adds a sixth thing: A father must also teach his son how to swim.
Why on earth does a father have to teach his kid how to swim? The simple understanding is that in Talmudic times a very common way of travelling was by boat. Merchant commerce was all done by boat. Boats in those days were rickety. It was not all that uncommon that boats would sink. So, naturally, a father should teach his son how to swim so that he will survive any situation which necessitated that skill.
But, aren’t there other things that a child needs to know in order to protect himself from the dangers that lurk? Was there only danger on the water and not on the roads? Perhaps a father should teach his son how to fight? Why, of all the practical skills needed to function in this world, did the Braisa only mention swimming?
The answer is as follows: Why did the Torah say that a fish that is kosher has to have fins and scales? It is because fish swim. What is the difference between swimming and floating? Floating means you stay above water but you have to go with the current. With swimming, one can provide his own direction. One can swim upstream, one cannot float upstream. One floats only wherever the water takes him.
Swimming represents the ability to survive in an environment that may be against you. The reason the Torah says that a fish has to have fins and scales to be kosher is because scales protect the fish from its environment. Scales serve as armor. The fish does not absorb everything that is out there in the water, because it has the protection of this armor. The fish is able to survive and swim wherever it wants to, because of its fins. Salmon go from the Pacific Ocean all the way upstream to where they are spawned – they provide their own direction. That is why they are kosher.
They are kosher because they don’t absorb things from their environment which could prove toxic to them, and they are kosher because they can provide their own direction, even against the current of the environment in which they find themselves.
This, too, is how a Jew has to survive. We are in Galus for the last two thousand years. We have been in Galus for the majority of Jewish history. How does one survive in Galus? One survives like a fish survives. We have our protection. We don’t absorb and assimilate from the culture that surrounds us. We have our fins and we swim and we don’t have to go with the flow. We can go against the flow.
The sign of Snapir (fins) and Kaskeses (scales) is what makes a Jew kosher: He has protection from the environment, and he charts his own direction. This is what the Talmud teaches when it says a person is obligated to teach his son to swim in water. It doesn’t only mean literally how to swim. It means a father must teach his son the art of swimming—the art of not going with the flow and not being swept up with the tide of the times, whatever that may be.
This is the message of the Snapir and Kaskeses, and the message of the father’s obligation to teach his son to swim.
Who said this beautiful homiletic thought? Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, zecher Tzadik l’Vracha.
Transcribed by David Twersky; Jerusalem [email protected]
Technical Assistance by Dovid Hoffman; Baltimore, MD [email protected]
This week’s write-up is adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissochar Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Series on the weekly Torah portion.
A listing of the halachic portions for Parshas Shmini is provided below:
- # 005 – Medicines Containing Chometz
- # 050 – The Tuna Fish Controversy
- # 093 – Melacha Before Havdalah
- # 141 – Using a Mikveh for Non-Orthodox Conversions
- # 188 – Netilas Yadayim for Bread and Fruit
- # 234 – Netilas Yadayim at Breakfast: Is One “Washed Up” for the Day?
- # 278 – Netilas Yadayim and Chatzizah
- # 324 – Sefiras Ha’omer
- # 368 – Don’t Drink and Daven
- # 412 – Minhagim of the Days of Sefira
- # 456 – Gelatin: Is It Kosher?
- # 500 – Is Turkey Kosher?
- # 544 – Bedikas Chametz
- # 588 – The Aveil and the Haircut
- # 632 – Baal Teshaktzu – Abstaining From Unpleasant Behaviour
- # 676 – Buffalo, Giraffe, and other Exotic Animals — Are they Kosher?
- # 720 – A Guf Naki for Davening
- # 764 – Loaig Le’rosh – Respecting the Dead
- # 808 – New York City – Don’t Drink the Water?
- # 852 – Four Questions You Probably Never Asked
- # 896 – Women & Havdalah – Second Thoughts
- # 941 – Mayim Acharonim: Is It Necessary?
- # 983 – Pesach – Thoughts on the Hagaddah – Vol. II
- #1027 – Giving Shalom/Saying Hello To A Person in Aveilus
- #1072 – The Fly That Fell Into The Soup
- #1114 – Can You Change Your Minhag of When To Keep Sefira?
- #1200 – Bugs in the Soup – What Should You Do?
- #1245 – The Latest Kashrus Problem: Orange Juice
- #1287 – Oops! I Spoke After Netilas Yadayim – Now What?
- #1332 – Dunking Your Doughnuts in Coffee – Must You Wash Netilas Yadayim?
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