Parshas Shemini contains a most unfortunate incident (at the beginning of the tenth perek). It is an incredible story. As the Mishkan was being dedicated, the inaugural korbonos were being offered on Rosh Chodesh Nissan. Then Aharon’s two eldest sons – Nadav and Avihu – brought a “foreign fire” and they were struck down from Heaven, then and there in the Mishkan.
Following this incident, the pasuk records: “And Moshe spoke to Aharon, and to Elazar and to Isamar, his sons that remained (hanosarim)…” (Vayikra 10:12). Rashi comments on the word “hanosarim” – this teaches that the death penalty was also decreed upon them (Elazar and Isamar). Literally, the pasuk means that Moshe spoke to Elazar and Isamar “the surviving sons.” Rashi indicates that these two sons should have been swept away in the heavenly decree as well, not because of what happened in the Mishkan on that inaugural day, but because of Aharon’s participation in the sin of the Egel haZahav (Golden Calf). This is alluded to by the pasuk “Moreover, the L-rd was very angry with Aharon to have destroyed him…(l’hashmido)” (Devarim 9:20). Both here and in Parshas Ekev, Rashi explains (based on Amos 2:9) that the Hebrew word l’hashmido indicates the eradication of children.
So, in truth, these two younger sons were supposed to die as well, but Moshe’s prayer for Aharon after the incident of the Egel haZahav was effective in cancelling half the decree, as it is written “…and I prayed also for Aharon at that time” (Devarim 9:20). That is why Elazar and Isamar are referred to here as the “remaining” or the “surviving” sons.
I once saw a very poignant observation from the Shemen haTov (Rav Dov Ze’ev Weinberger). The terminology “survivors” that we use today has a special connotation. The word “survivors” refers to people who survived the Holocaust. In other words, “survivors” are people who were in Europe and either were in the camps and survived or somehow managed to hide during that period. They are “survivors.” However, people who were in America – they are not “survivors.” They did not experience the horrors of what happened in Europe during World War II.
Rav Weinberger writes that this is a mistake. Of course, people in America did not experience the horrors, but nonetheless, we still all need to look at ourselves as survivors. Had Hitler, yemach shemo, had his way, there would not be any Jews left anyplace on the face of the Earth. Had Hitler been victorious, and had he defeated the Allies, he would have gone after the Jews no matter where they were. He was out to make us an extinct race. So, whether we or our parents happened to be in Europe or wherever they may have been – we see from this Rashi “hanosarim” that someone is called a survivor if he was “supposed to have died” and for some reason, by Hashem‘s mercy, he did not die.
The practical lesson behind this is that just as survivors feel a certain responsibility, which may change their lives and make them feel like they now have a mission – we all need to feel like that. If someone is a survivor, he feels that he was saved for a reason. We see this often. People who survive a plane crash or some other near-death experience often walk away and say, “I survived this; therefore, I need to do something different with my life. I cannot go on living ‘as is.'”
This is the point of the Shemen HaTov. We need to all look at ourselves as survivors and implement the implications that this implies. If not for the mercy of Hashem that we happened to be in America or that our parents or grandparents happened to be in America, or that Baruch Hashem, Hitler was defeated (that was also part of the ‘Yad HaShem‘), we too could have been swept away by the Holocaust.
Admitting Errors Demonstrates Greatness
The next part of the parsha begins with the pesukim: “And Moshe diligently inquired after the goat of the sin-offering, and behold, it was burnt and he was angry with Elazar and with Isamar, the sons of Aharon that were left, saying: Why have you not eaten the sin-offering in the place of the sanctuary, seeing it is most holy, and He has given it you to bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for them before Hashem.” (Vayikra 10:16-17)
This is a difficult parsha to understand. The Gemara (Zevachim 101b) explains what was going on over here: On that day of the inaugural setting up of the Mishkan, three korbonos were brought – (1) the goat of Rosh Chodesh; (2) the korban of Nachshon ben Aminadav (the first of the nessiyim (tribal princes), who each brought their own korban on each of the first twelve days of the Mishkan’s dedication); (3) a sin offering brought in conjunction with the inauguration of the Mishkan (Chatas haMiluim).
The halacha is that an onen (a person who has just lost a close relative) is forbidden from eating kodoshim (sacrificial meat). Moshe Rabbeinu came to Aharon and said “Listen, Aharon, you and your sons are now onenim by virtue of the fact that you just lost you brothers and sons. An onen is normally forbidden to eat kodoshim, but the Ribono shel Olam told me that this is an exception to the rule! In this situation, I am telling you in the name of Hashem that you may eat these korbonos, in spite of the fact that you are onenim.
Moshe Rabbeinu therefore expected that these three korbonos should all be eaten. Moshe noticed that one of these three offerings had not been consumed but was rather burnt – namely the goat of Rosh Chodesh. He therefore criticized his brother and nephews for this negligence: Aharon responded to Moshe that his own understanding was that this special exception that Hashem made only applied to the two special korbonos that were brought in conjunction with the inauguration of the Mishkan (namely korbonos #2 & #3 above). However, it should not apply to the standard goat of Rosh Chodesh offering, which was in no way connected with the inaugural service, but was merely brought on that day because the inauguration happened to coincide with Rosh Chodesh. Therefore, regarding that korbon, there was no exception, and since they were onenim, they felt it necessary to burn the korban rather than eat it.
In other words, Aharon was telling his younger brother “Rav Moshe, you are wrong. You made a mistake in your assumption!” That is the discussion that is going on between Aharon and Moshe.
The Torah comments: When Moshe heard Aharon’s argument, he was pleased (Vayikra 10:20). Rashi here, based on the Gemara in Zevachim cited above, comments “He admitted his mistake and was not embarrassed. He did not say ‘I never heard this,’ but rather ‘I heard this but made a mistake.'”
Rashi is saying that Moshe had a decision to make. He recognized that Aharon was right and he was wrong. He could have said one of two things: He could have said, “Aharon, I didn’t hear that, I didn’t know that; but I hear what you are saying – it makes sense. I believe you are correct.” Moshe Rabbeinu did not say that. Rather, he said “Aharon, you are right and I am wrong. I heard that and I forgot!” He admitted his mistake and was not embarrassed to do so.
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz says that if any of us would be in that situation, our natural instinct would be to say “I never heard that.” It is extremely hard to say the words “I heard that and I forgot.” By saying those words, Moshe Rabbeinu was opening himself up to the charge that the entire Torah and our entire tradition could go down the drain! Once Moshe Rabbeinu said “I heard that and I forgot” the immediate reaction might be “Well, what else did you forget?” By saying that, Moshe risked losing his credibility. People might ask “How can we ever trust you again?”
Moshe could have rationalized that he wasn’t protecting his ego, but rather he was trying to preserve the integrity of the entire Mesorah of Torah. And yet, he openly said, “I made a mistake.” There are no exceptions to the rule “Distance yourself from falsehood…” (Shemos 23:7) It took tremendous fortitude and strength of character for Moshe to say “I heard it and I forgot!”
As I pointed out on other occasions, by us, the sign of a true leader is the ability to say “I made a mistake,” the ability to say “I’m wrong,” the ability to say “I’m sorry.” This goes all the way back to Parshas Vayechi. When the pasuk says that Yaakov Avinu chose Yehudah to become the monarch (Bereshis 49:8), Targum Yonoson explains that Yehudah was chosen as the source of the monarchy because he had the character and integrity to admit by Tamar, “She is more righteous than I” (Bereshis 38:26).
When Rav Chaim Soloveitchik became the Rosh Yeshiva in Volozhin, he had a revolutionary way of analyzing Talmud which did not sit well with many of the “powers that be.” People claimed that the only reason Rav Chaim got his job was because he married the granddaughter of the Rosh Yeshiva, the Netziv (Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin). People claimed that he was really not fit to be given such a prominent role in the Yeshiva. So, they convened a Beis Din. Rav Chaim was asked to say a shiur in front of several of the Gedolim of 19th century European Jewry (including Reb Reuven Duenaburger, the Rabbi of Dvinsk, Reb Yitzhak Elchanan Spektor, the Rabbi of Kovno, and Rav Yehoshua Yitzchak Shapira, known as Rav Eizele Charif).
Rav Chaim gave the shiur. It was a brilliant shiur, which wowed the entire Beis Medrash. In the middle of the shiur, Rav Chaim remembered that there was a Peirush HaRambam on the Mishna somewhere that demolished the entire intellectual structure that he had constructed. He closed his Gemara and said, “I’m sorry I made a mistake. I am wrong” and sat down. Remember that this was his ‘Shabbas Proba’ (rabbinic audition) in front of some of the greatest Eastern European Rabbonim of the time. The Gedolim who were there proclaimed, “Rav Chaim is worthy to be the Rosh Yeshiva in Volozhin.” Someone who possesses such striving for truth that allows him to accept personal embarrassment in order to achieve the truth is qualified to become a Rosh Yeshiva. The capacity to say, “I made a mistake. I apologize. I’m wrong.” qualifies a person for the monarchy. It qualified Moshe to be Moshe Rabbeinu.
Strange Sentence Syntax Suggests Subservient Service for Selective Statutes (i.e., Chukim)
Hilchos Kashrus – which animals are kosher, which birds are kosher, and which fish are kosher – appears for the first time in the Torah here in Parshas Shemini. The very last pasuk in the parsha reads: “to make a difference between the unclean and the clean and between the living things that may be eaten and the living things that shall not be eaten (u’bein haChaya ha’ne’echeles u’bein haChaya asher lo sei’achel).” (Vayira 11:47).
Someone who is sensitive to Hebrew grammar will notice an anomaly when studying this pasuk. If we were to write the end of this pasuk, we would write “u’bein haChaya ha’ne’echeles u’bein haChaya asher eino ne’echeles.” This would be a parallel statement, using the same tense and construction for the positive and negative parts of the statement. Alternatively, we would write “u’bein haChaya asher sei’achel u’bein haChaya asher lo sei’achel.” That too would have provided appropriate grammatical symmetry between the positive and negative parts of the statement.
However, the pasuk switches grammatical constructs in the middle of a sentence – between the animal that can be eaten and the animal that you shall not eat. This seems awkward. Why does the Torah do this? My son, Yakov, told me that he once heard the following observation from Rav Yochonan Zweig:
There are different indications throughout Chazal of what a person’s attitude should be towards fulfillment of mitzvos and abstention from Torah prohibitions. In other words, should my inclination be that I am anyway going to do or not do certain activities, leaving the fact that Hashem told me to do or not do these specific activities as somewhat of an afterthought – as if the person is expressing “full agreement” with Hashem‘s mitzvos? Or, should a person’s attitude be “If I had my preference, I would certainly do X, Y, Z (against what the Torah instructs); except Hashem told me not to do it, and therefore I am complying.
Is the proper hashkafa to observe Torah because it makes sense to you and you agree with it, or is the proper hashkafa to feel that you are forced to observe something against your inclination because you are being loyal to Hashem‘s instructions? Which is the preferable approach to mitzvah observance?
The Rambam, in his Shemoneh Perakim, gives us a guideline to answer this question: He says it depends on what type of mitzvah it is. It depends whether it is a Mitzvah Sichlee (a logical, rational mitzvah) or not. Do not steal is a logical mitzva. Everyone knows that we cannot endure in a society that steals. The Torah says to honor our parents. This is a rational mitzvah. Our parents brought us into this world, they raised us, they fed us, etc.
Other mitzvos are not rational. They are called chukim. We do not understand the reason behind them. Examples of chukim are the mitzvos at the end of Parshas Shemini – forbidden foods. Kashrus is not “logical.” Logically, there should not be a difference between eating a piece of beef and eating a piece of pork. What is the difference? What is wrong with pig? A large portion of the world eats pork and bacon.
What is wrong with shell fish? People who were chozer b’teshuva often say that the thing they miss most from their previous lifestyle is eating shell fish! The State of Maryland is the state of the Blue Crab. People come to Baltimore just to eat crab from the Chesapeake Bay! When I smell crab, I run the other way, but I am sure that if I was raised with crab and was fed crab as a child, I would also like crab. I know goyim who, when they smell Gefilte fish, run the other way! I like Gefilte fish because that is the way I was raised.
But what should my hashkafa be? The Rambam says that it depends. A person should not say “I hate pig. I hate shellfish.” He should say “I would want to eat pork. I would want to eat crab. I would want to taste a cheese burger. I would want to have a sirloin steak or porter house steak, or all such things… But what can I do? The Ribono shel Olam told me not to do it!”
If that is the case, the pasuk makes beautiful sense. “Between the animal that can be eaten and between the animal that ‘You shall not eat.'” We are not talking about an animal “that is not eaten.” These forbidden animals (pigs, crabs, birds of prey, etc.) are very much eaten and I would enjoy eating them, but they are animals about which I have been commanded “You SHALL NOT eat” and therefore I don’t eat them! That is why the Torah formulates the statement in this syntax.
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?
- #1376 – Talking While Washing Your Hands for Netilas Yodayim – Is There a Problem?
- #1420 – Using a Plastic Cup for Kiddush, Havdala or Netilas Yadayim?
- #1464 – Davening in a Porch Minyan During the Corona Pandemic – Is it a Good Idea?
- #1507 – An Interesting Sefiras Haomer Shaila
A complete catalogue can be ordered from the Yad Yechiel Institute, PO Box 511, Owings Mills MD 21117-0511. Call (410) 358-0416 or e-mail [email protected] or visit http://www.yadyechiel.org/ for further information.