Roles, Responsibilities, and Remorse

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Rabbi Yonatan Kaganoff

Over half of Parshas Naso consists of the story of the the dedication of the Mishkan during the first 12 days of Nissan by the 12 Nesi’im, the leaders of the tribes.

It is interesting that this event on the first day Nissan is described in Sefer Shemos, Vayikra & Bamidbar, with very different focii.

Within Sefer Bamidbar, the dedication of the Mishkan is described within the story on the creation of the political structure of Bnei Yisroel as they prepare to wage war and conquer the land of Israel. Later, as they fail to follow the political, religious and prophetic leadership of Moshe and Aharon, they squander their opportunity to enter the land of Israel and have to wait a generation to fulfill their destiny.

It is within the context of the creation of the political and social structure of the Camp and community of Bnei Yisroel that the dedication of the Mishkan is described and the role of the Nesi’im, the political leaders of the 12 tribes is enshrined in their contributions and sacrifices.

There is a famous midrash, quoted by many that Aharon, the Kohein Gadol, felt bad when he witnessed the donations of the Nesi’im, of which he did not take part, as he was the Nasi of Shevet Levi.

To compensate, G-d, at the beginning of the next Parsha, Ba’ha’aloscha, focuses on Aharon’s unique mitzvah of lighting the Menorah. Various versions of this midrash highlight how while the Mishkan is temporary, Aharon’s mitzvah was eternal. The obvious question asked by the Ramban is how is the lighting of the Menorah, which itself was only performed when the Mishkan (and later the Bais ha-Mikdash) was standing, were any more permanent than the Mishkan?

Ramban famously suggests that Aharon’s descendants were central to the miraculous salvation of Chanukah, alluded to by the commandment to light the Menorah and that even after the destruction of the Bais Ha-Mikdash the holiday of Chanukah is still celebrated and, to this day, the heroism of Aharon’s descendants is commemorated.

Upon initial reflection, the Ramban’s question and answer only serve to make a seemingly odd Midrash even stranger, as what does Chanukah have to do with the dedication of the Mishkan thousands of year earlier. However, read in the context of Parshas Naso and Sefer Bamidbar, the Ramban and the Midrash teach a religious psychological truth.

Within Ramban’s presentation of the narrative, Aharon, as head of Levi and the Chief Religious Officer of Bnei Yisroel gave up any claims to political and military power when he was appointed Kohain Gadol and head religious functionary. Aharon then saw the political leaders playing a central religious role in the dedication of the Mishkan. In effect, the 12 Nes’im were able to play both essential political and religious roles. Aharon who had sacrificed the political for thre religious realm, on some level regretted his calling. G-d responded that his descendants, the Maccabi’im would later hold both the religious and the political/military leadership and through having both positions, bring about the redemption of Chanukah.

What Aharon experienced, in the Ramban’s retelling, is a very human religious experience. After we sacrifice for the sake of religion (whether it is an educational, financial, or professional sacrifice) we see others who did not make this sacrifice, but appear to have aquired both the external benefit and the religious growth for which we sacrificed, making the sacrifice appear meaningless. But nonetheless, only G-d can know the true consequences and benefits of a personal religious sacrifice and what we have gained, in the long term by giving up for the sake of our religion and G-d.

Rabbi Yonatan Kaganoff (SBM 1997) worked for many years in the Kashrut Division of the Orthodox Union, where he went by the nom de plume“Webbe Rebbe” and has dabbled in adult education and interfaith dialogue, but is currently a “civilian”. He was the founding online editor of Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought. He currently lives in the German Jewish community of Washington Heights with his family and is an amateur puppeteer (www.puppetyeshiva.com) in his free time.

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