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Between Pesach and Shavuot

This time of year, from Pesach to Shavuot, originally was a very ecstatic time for the Jewish people. Liberated directly by God after 210 years of oppressive and tortuous slavery in Egypt, experiencing the life-saving miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea, followed by being fed food literally from heaven, the Jewish nation was on its way to Mt. Sinai. Once there God would give them the Torah and establish an everlasting covenant with the entire nation. Through the mitzvah of “counting the Omer,” Jews would forever commemorate this process.
These seven weeks should have remained a time of great joy with an annual anticipation of heightening our relation with God by commemorating the receiving of the Torah on Shavuot. Yet in the time of Rabbi Akiva (50 CE to 137 CE) a great tragedy occurred, one that we are still mourning. The Talmud tells us that 24,000 students of his died the same year during these weeks between Pesach and Shavuot. The Talmud relates that they died for not showing proper respect to each other. They argued with each other over who was greater.

While there is an ongoing debate whether celebrities (actors, athletes, secular scholars, government personal and the like) are also role models for others in society, with regard to Torah scholarship there is no debate. Torah scholarship comes with responsibility. The punishment of these scholars was harsh, not the one ordinarily imposed for disrespect. Yet because these were scholars of the highest order, their personal misbehavior brought with it a desecration of God’s name. Their lack of respect would be attributed to their following God’s system of law and ethics. People would wrongly infer, since they were all acting this way, that their behavior was appropriate, thus denigrating God’s great name in the world. What God would endorse a system of behavior that condones disrespect of other human beings?

Contrasting with this behavior is an event recorded in this week’s Torah portion, Shemini. Here it presents the appropriate model of behavior. In this portion we are privy to a serious, anger and tension laden dispute between Moshe and his brother Aaron. (Vayikra 10:16-20) At the heart of the matter was the fact that Aaron did eat the sacrifice for the dedication of the Mishkan but he did not consume the sin offering offered the same day. Additionally, earlier on this day, Aaron’s eldest two sons died during the dedication of the Mishkan and their installation ceremony.  They brought a “strange fire before the Lord.”   Due to the death of his sons, the legal status of Aaron and his remaining son’s changed.  The new status is called “oneinut.” An “onen” is exempt from all positive commands until the deceased close relative is buried. Eating sacrificial food is a positive command and is prohibited.

How then could Aaron and his sons eat one sacrifice but not the other? This was Moshe’s initial position. He became angry with Aaron and his sons for their contradictory actions. Although he was angry, Moshe did not disparage Aaron or his nephews. Neither did he insult them or call them names. After Aaron answers for his seemingly contradictory actions, the Torah records Moshe’s response. “Moshe heard and it pleased him.” (Vayikra 10:20)

What happened? Some interesting deductions can be made from this event. One, even though there is no dispute that Moshe received the Torah at Mt. Sinai, his application of the law was wrong. Two, he admitted he was wrong and three, he was actually pleased by Aaron’s answer.

What causes disrespect? What causes one person to put down another and in extreme situations debase or abuse another person? The source for this behavior lies within. Flaws and defects within a person are suppressed until another person exhibits those very same traits. Lashing out against or disregarding the other person is the result of their inadvertent behavior that brings those internal weaknesses to the surface. We can’t be angry at ourselves so we take out the anger on the one who brings attention to our own faults.

Moshe Rabbenu was motivated differently. His concern was to understand the reality of life created by God, live it personally and teach it to the Jewish nation. Moshe received all of the postulates of the system of Judaism at Mt. Sinai. However, their understandings and applications were not transmitted. He had to work them out as any student does. He did not have “the inside track,” or answer book to every situation that would arise in the future. In this regard, Moshe’s decision was subject to the same critical analysis as any other person’s ideas would be. Having learned with Moshe, Aaron had the same postulates of the system of Judaism. He applied them according to his understanding and came to the opposite conclusion Moshe had come too regarding the eating of the sin sacrifice on this day.

The theoretical argument and application of those concepts between Moshe and Aaron are for another writing. Suffice it to say that Moshe did not regarded Aaron’s refusal to eat the sin sacrifice as a personal affront to his authority. Moshe’s anger was due to his concern for the proper implementation of God’s law. When Moshe heard Aaron’s explanation, “He was pleased.”  He could see that Aaron’s application and understanding of the particular postulates at play fit in better to the entire system of Torah than his. Concern for God’s system               (attachment to reality) was the primary mover in the personality of Moshe. He was not motivated at all by his internal makeup, such as who would appear smarter to others or who would be recognized as the true Torah authority. Unfortunately, these and other personal motivations were at play among the students of Rabbi Akiva.

As we advance now from Pesach to Shavuot, let us resolve to use this time period as originally intended, to be a means for our perfection. Let us be guided in our approach to all interpersonal relations by the model displayed by Moshe in this week’s parsha.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Robert Kaplan