Pesach is an intrinsic part of our fiber. Its mitzvos, rituals, liturgy and special foods enrich and enhance our souls year after year.
While the Yom Tov has a special effect on children, as we grow older we perceive new depths; chag hacheirus becomes more meaningful as we appreciate its valuable messages in a different, richer way. We increasingly realize how Pesach is meant to equip us with new resolve to rid ourselves of chometz and cheit, villains and tormentors. It drives us to pine ever more for the geulah, so that we might merit visiting the home of Hashem, offering korbanos to Him.
We recognize that we can only arrive there by doing what is incumbent upon us and fulfilling our missions as best as we can. We reach our potential by studying the Torah and seeking messages from the weekly parsha and from the other portions of the Torah we study.
Rather than feeling dejection as a Yom Tov draws to a close, we should be tempered by the new attitudes we developed over the duration of the holy days. Rishonim point to an optimistic lesson gleaned from the recital of the Haggadah Shel Pesach. We note that Hashem redeemed the Jews, even though they were submerged in the impurity of Mitzrayim. Although they may have been unworthy, He lifted them, raising their levels and cleansing them, so that they would be worthy of redemption. He did it for them, and we know He will do it for us.
Now, newly invigorated and charged, we return to the hard work of daily life. We may not always appreciate what we must experience on a regular basis and wish, as we should, that every day could be a Yom Tov, when we divide our time between physical and spiritual enjoyment.
A follower of the Baal Shem Tov worked very hard to earn enough money to be able to purchase and prepare Shabbos foods. The strain of finding money with which to honor Shabbos took a toll on the man and he traveled to the rebbe for help.
“Please bless me to be able to celebrate Shabbos without agmas nefesh,” he asked.
The rebbe turned to the man and what he said changed his life. “How do you know the rewards for your actions?” he asked. “It may very well be that in Heaven they desire the efforts you expend for Shabbos as much as the results. If you forsake the agmas nefesh, you may be giving up more than you think you are.”
As we patiently await that great day of which Shabbos is but a hint, we must bear in mind that the agmas nefesh we experience is part of our task. Hard work, while uncomfortable and unnerving, is often an essential component of our mission. How we react to aggravation and tribulation is a testament to our belief and integral to any success we may have.
We do not have nevi’im to provide us with personal direction, but we can turn to the Torah and the weekly parsha, knowing that its relevance is eternal.
This week’s parsha of Shemini is particularly emblematic of the type of uplifting lessons with which we are gifted, the lights therein illuminating our path.
At the time of Krias Yam Suf, a fearful nation was told, “Hashem yilocheim lochem ve’atem tacharishun – Your duty at this time is to remain silent, as Hashem defeats the Mitzriyim.”
Chazal state that this advice is eternal; it is as pertinent today as it was then. There are times when we must speak up and times when we must remain silent, times to do battle and times to be passive.
How we are to act is dictated by the Torah, as so beautifully expressed by Shlomo Hamelech in Koheles: “Eis livkos, ve’eis lischok… Eis le’ehov, ve’eis lisno, eis milchomah, ve’eis sholom.” How we are to act in each “eis,” or time, is determined by Torah.
Many times, you hear people describe a person as a good man. For example, they say, “He does a lot of chesed, he is a good husband, and he is kovei’a ittim.” Homiletically, the phrase may have come about as a depiction of people who determine what type of eis it is and how to react to various ittim through the prism of Koheles and Torah. When we say that a person is “kovei’a ittim,” we are saying that the Torah is his foundation and solidifies his responses to the vagaries of life.
In this week’s parsha, we learn that when Aharon Hakohein was selected to perform the avodah in the Mishkon, he demurred, feeling unworthy of the position. The posuk states that he was commanded to approach the mizbei’ach: “Krav el hamizbei’ach.” Rashi quotes Chazal, who explain the strange language as teaching that Aharon was told, “Set aside your humility, because you were Divinely chosen for this task.”
Although Aharon preferred to remain in the background, when told that it was an eis for him to step into a leadership position, he was spurred to action.
His sons, Nodov and Avihu, however, sought to go where they didn’t belong. They reasoned that they were worthy of making decisions regarding the Mishkon of Hashem. They made a cardinal error, offering up a fire “asher lo tzivah,” and were smitten on the day that the consecration of the Mishkon was celebrated.
They missed their chance at the opportunity to patiently and humbly learn from their elders.
Humility doesn’t mean that it is not important to be confident in our abilities. Rav Yeruchom Levovitz zt”l would say that a person who doesn’t recognize his weaknesses can study mussar and thus repair those middos in which he is lacking. However, one who doesn’t appreciate his positive attributes will never get far enough to even open the door of the study hall, much less study the seforim that can help him realize his potential. Humility means that while we appreciate our attributes, we accept upon ourselves the “kevias ittim” of Torah. Those who don’t, jeopardize their ability to perform in the house of Hashem and lead active, successful lives.
After his arrival in Eretz Yisroel, Rav Elozor Menachem Man Shach zt”l lived in a small apartment in the Kerem Avrohom neighborhood of Yerushalayim. The diminutive, humble man kept to himself, engaging in Torah learning all the time and rarely opening his mouth to express an opinion on issues of the day. His acquaintances in the Kerem shul saw him as a talmid chochom, but few foresaw a position of leadership for the scholar.
Eventually, the poverty-stricken Rav Shach accepted a position as a maggid shiur in Tel Aviv, grateful for the chance to teach Torah and earn an income. Within weeks of starting the new job, however, he detected that the leader of the mosad possessed an outlook that was contrary to that of gedolei Yisroel.
Rav Shach didn’t hesitate. Without stopping to consider his own financial situation, he immediately resigned his position and returned home, settling back into his corner of the small shul where he learned.
He had thought that his time to speak had arrived, but, as it turned out, it was still time for him to remain silent.
His rebbi, the Brisker Rov, encouraged him. “Someone who forfeits parnossah because of principle will only see brachos,” he told him.
In time, the Ponovezher Rov discovered Rav Shach, and after living in virtual anonymity for so long, the rosh yeshiva’s rise to leadership began, ushering in the glory era for the olam haTorah.
He retreated from offering a fire when he felt it wasn’t the ratzon Hashem.
Many years later, a group of kanno’im went to Bnei Brak, wishing to take issue with a position of Rav Shach. They attacked his viewpoint, making it abundantly clear that they thought he was misguided.
The rosh yeshiva rose and removed his sefer Avi Ezri on the Rambam’s Hilchos Nezikin. He showed them the haskomah of the Brisker Rov.
“Doh shteit as ich darf eich nisht freggen. Here it says that I don’t need to ask your opinion,” Rav Shach told his visitors.
He was an exceedingly humble man, but when he felt that the Torah demanded strength from him, he stood up to the world based on the precepts of the Torah.
The Netziv, in his introduction to his peirush on Shir Hashirim, writes that the seventh day of Pesach was intended for us to ponder the lesson of the flat, unleavened matzah. He says that on the first day of Pesach, we eat matzah because we left Mitzrayim in haste, before the bread had a chance to rise.
On the other days of Pesach, we eat matzah for the same reason the shiyorei menachos the kohanim ate did not contain chometz. He says that is to teach those who seek holiness and closeness to Hashem to endeavor to limit their involvement in the ways of the world. Those who want to be closer to Hashem should pursue an unleavened lifestyle.
Similarly, says the Netziv, on Pesach we work to bring ourselves closer to Hashem and therefore do not partake of leavened products. With respect to the final day of the chag, the posuk says, “Uvayom hashvi’i atzeres laHashem Elokecha.” It is a day of atzeres, of halting, stopping and desisting.
On the final day of Yom Tov, we are commanded to internalize its messages. This includes not only the messages of the holiness and closeness to Hashem that we have merited, but also the matzah’s lesson of humility.
Aharon Hakohein merited a life of closeness to Hashem, working in His shadow in the Mishkon because of his deep humility. He sought to distance himself from leadership, for he felt himself unworthy, but once he was commanded to rise, he embraced his position fully. As he served Hashem on the holiest levels, mentoring his people wasn’t beneath him. The oheiv es habrios umekarvan laTorah lived on the golden path, traveling the road of harmony. He loved people and sought to bring them to Torah, but to accomplish that, he never compromised on halachah. Aharon did not act on his own. He always followed the direction of Hashem delivered by his brother, Moshe.
Nodov and Avihu were well-intentioned, but their hubris misled them and caused them to be lost to the Jewish people.
Upon their demise, the Torah tells us, “Vayidom Aharon,” their great father, the kohein gadol, who had just initiated his role of officiating in the Heichal Hashem, was silent. Aharon was undoubtedly able to express himself very well; he was surely a competent and experienced communicator. After all, he was Moshe Rabbeinu’s spokesman. He was a man who pursued peace, settled disputes, and drew people closer to Torah. Why is it that when his two great sons were taken from him, he remained silent?
Because this is what was demanded by the Torah during this “eis.”
He had no mesorah of how to respond. Nobody had ever experienced a tragedy like this. He had no tradition of how a father reacts when losing children who were moreh halacha lifnei rabbon, being makriv an eish zora at the chanukas haMikdosh. They were great men, with righteous intentions, but Aharon remembered the lesson of “Ve’atem tacharishun.” Silence is also a response, and sometimes the only correct one.
In our world, in our time, and in our lives, there are many trials and tribulations. Life throws curveballs. Sometimes, the best reaction is silence.
When there is no mesorah on how to respond, we remain silent and wait for those more qualified than us to speak up and provide direction. We don’t rush headstrong into new storms. We don’t view ourselves in grandiose terms. We remember the lessons of the matzah and of the kohanim who are mekadeish themselves and seek to become closer to Hashem.
Through perfecting the art of silence, we merit the gift of speech. Chazal tell us that the reward for Aharon’s silence was that in the following parsha, the rule that kohanim may not become intoxicated at the time of avodah was told by Hashem to Aharon alone. Because he remained silent, Aharon was given a special mitzvah to transmit. He was called upon to speak.
There is no mandate to be quiet, nor one to speak. The only mandate is to follow the ratzon Hashem. Our only task is to be a “kovei’a ittim.”
One who is humble enough to submit is humble enough to lead.
The message of this week’s parsha and the lessons of our gedolei Yisroel – who, as different as they may have been in outlook or temperament, shared the dual characteristics of humility to follow and the courage to lead – usher in the period of Sefirah. During these days, we work to perfect our character traits. It doesn’t come easy, but it is the type of work that allows us to keep growing and merit other opportunities to serve Hashem.
Through our study of Pirkei Avos during these months following Pesach and our fidelity to Torah and its mesorah, we can attempt to be “kovei’a ittim,” knowing when to speak and when to remain silent, when to do battle and when to seek peace. We can be certain that as we endeavor to rise and improve ourselves through this Sefirah period, our hard work is cherished in Heaven.