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Achieving Closeness To Hashem

May 21, 2009
This week's parsha describes the Kohen and Levi's roles as guardians of the Beit Hamikdash (Parshat Korach repeats and elaborates on this). The Rambam explains that these guards did not need to protect the Mikdash, they were guards of honor, whose presence added glory to the Mikdash. The Mikdash itself, which houses the Divine Presence, protects us - we do not need to guard it. There is an opinion that the guards were stationed there to safeguard the fortunes of gold and silver donated by the populace, however the Rambam does not discuss this.

What is puzzling about the Rambam's view is that the Torah seems to explicitly state their function. The guards are stationed outside the Mikdash to insure entry only to those permitted by the Torah. Any non-Kohen, or even a Kohen who is ritually impure, cannot enter beyond a certain point. Our parsha alludes to this task of the guards, while Parshat Korach spells it out more clearly. After the incident in which the ground swallowed up Korach and his assembly, we read: "The Children of Israel said to Moshe, saying: 'Behold! we perish, we are lost we are all lost'" (Bamidbar 17:27). Observing what happened to Korach and his cohorts, they noted that "everyone who approaches closer to the Tabernacle of Hashem will die." Terrified for themselves, they asked: "Will we ever stop perishing?" (ibid. 28).

Hashem then said to Aharon: "'You, your sons, and your father's household with you shall bear the iniquity of the Sanctuary; and you and your sons with you shall bear the iniquity of your priesthood. Also your brethren the tribe of Levi, the tribe of your father, shall you draw near with you, and they shall be joined to you and minister to you. You and your sons with you shall be before the Tent of the Testimony. They shall safeguard your charge and the charge of the entire tent'" (Bamidbar 18:1-3). The Torah appears to be describing this function of the guards, insuring that only Aharon and his descendants enter the Mikdash.

It is a severe prohibition to enter the Mikdash without permission. A non-kohen violates a lav in the Torah, while one who enters in a state of ritual impurity is punished with karet. Given the severity of this prohibition, why the need for safeguarding the area? Is the Torah speaking to children? Presumably any adult has the common sense to keep away from a dangerous area. Would one even approach an area known to be a minefield? We already read how the people feared they would die if they got too close - is someone forcing them to approach the forbidden zone that they require guards.

Rashi explains that the people feared that they would be unable to refrain from crossing forbidden boundaries. Jewish people yearn for that spark of holiness found in the Mikdash. In their quest to get as close to Hashem as possible, they fear they may lose control and enter a forbidden area. A place imbued with kedusha, sanctity, is a place where one can receive G-dliness. This G-dliness is attainable, however there are limitations. Certain parts of it are off-limits even to a Kohen Gadol, others to an ordinary Kohen and still larger areas are forbidden to a Yisrael. The Jewish people, in their striving to reach the top, may cross into forbidden areas, thus they need the tribe of Levi to protect them from this. Although a person should strive to reach as high a spiritual level as possible, he must also realize his limitations.

Immediately prior to Matan Torah, Hashem told Moshe Rabenu to instruct the Jewish nation to become "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Shmot 19:6). The people responded: "everything that Hashem has spoken we shall do" (ibid. 8). The Torah records "vayashev Moshe" - Moshe relayed the words of the people to Hashem. Shortly thereafter Hashem spoke to Moshe at Har Sinai: "Behold! I come to you in the thickness of the cloud, so that the people will hear as I speak to you, and they will also believe in you forever" (ibid. 9). When the people hear Hashem speaking to Moshe they will wish to receive the Torah. Moshe relayed this message to the people, and then "vayaged Moshe" - "Moshe related the words of the people to Hashem" (ibid.).

The verb vayaged as opposed to vayashev implies that Moshe did not simply relay the people's response, for there was a point of contention here. The commentaries explain that this time, when Hashem declared that He will speak only to Moshe the people expressed dissatisfaction and did not simply respond: "Everything that Hashem has spoken we shall do!" (ibid. 8). "Vayashev Moshe" would have implied that the answer was a simple "yes". However this did not adequately describe what Moshe reported back to Hashem. Rashi describes the people's unhappiness with the prospect of Hashem speaking only to Moshe- "it is our wish to see our King" - they desired to hear Hashem's voice directly from within the fire - they wished to attain that same level of prophecy.

Hashem acquiesced to this request and instructed Moshe "Go to the people and sanctify them today and tomorrow, and they shall wash their clothing. Let them be prepared for the third day, for on the third day Hashem shall descend in the sight of the entire people on Har Sinai" (ibid. 10-11). The nation needs to make the necessary preparations for this great event.

It seems that the nation subsequently regretted their insistence that Hashem speak directly to them. They told Moshe: "You speak to us and we shall hear; let G-d not speak to us lest we die" (Shmot 20:16). Those present at Har Sinai felt unable to cope with this high level, a level that even Yechezkel and other prophets did not attain: "For is there any human that has heard the voice of the Living G-d speaking from the midst of the fire, as we have, and lived? You should approach and hear whatever Hashem, our G-d, will say, and you should speak to us whatever Hashem, our G-d will speak to you - then we shall hear and we shall do" (Devarim 5:23-24).

In the middle of the second commandment the people appear to express regret. Hashem spoke the commandments of "anochi" and "lo yihye" directly to the people, yet before completing the second commandment, the nation cried to Moshe: "You should approach and hear"- they were no longer able to tolerate hearing the voice of Hashem at Sinai.

I do not think they had any reason to regret their desire that Hashem speak to them directly. While it may be true that the nation felt unable to withstand this high level, nevertheless it was worth reaching that level of prophecy even if for only the short amount of time it took to say "anochi" and "lo yihye". It was worth being present at this momentous occasion in which a recently enslaved nation who was forced to work with mortar and bricks received the tremendous gift of the Torah. This was the same nation who only fifty days previously had found themselves sunken to the depths of the forty-nine levels of impurity. Had it not been for Hashem's last minute intervention, their dough would have leavened. The dough in this case refers to the yetzer hara. The yetzer hara would have overpowered them rendering them incapable of ascending from the impurity of Egypt. As they neared the Yam Suf, it is of this nation that the angel of Egypt charged that they appeared no different from the Egyptians and that therefore they did not deserve to be saved.

At our Pesach Seder we declare: "if You had only brought us to Har Sinai and had not given us the Torah, this would have been sufficient". What is the use of being at Har Sinai without receiving the Torah? Feeling that closeness to Hashem and having reached such a high level would have been worthwhile even had we not received the Torah. It was here that the Jewish nation reached the understanding that ki Hashem hu haelokim bashamayim mimaal ve-al haaretz mitachat ein od - no other power exists in the heaven nor on the earth. At Har Sinai we actually felt the Divine Presence.

The Jewish soul yearns for that closeness. I believe it was the Radba"z who wrote that even following the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash many people desired to go on Har HaBayit - they had difficulty staying away. The Jewish wants to feel that holiness.

A non-Jew cannot understand this. Yaakov wished to purchase the birthright from Esav: "Yaakov said: 'sell, as this day, your birthright to me'" (Bereishit 25:31). What does it mean to sell the birthright? Although Yaakov and Esav were twins, Esav was firstborn. How could a sale change these facts? Rashi comments that Yaakov wanted to attain the kehuna. Prior to Matan Torah, the kehuna belonged to the firstborn, but it appears they had the right to transfer it to others. Yaakov desired to serve Hashem and wished to bring Him offerings. Esav responded: "Look I am going to die, so of what use to me is a birthright?" (Bereishit 25:32). From where did Esav get the idea that he was going to die? Rashi elaborates on this conversation: "Esav said 'what is the nature of this service?' Yaakov said to him: 'several prohibitions, and punishments, and death penalties are associated with it, such as that which we have learned: 'the following are included in the death penalty: those who have performed the service after having drunk wine, and those who perform the service having long hair'; Esav said: 'I am going to die through the birthright, if so, what is there in it that I would want?'" (Rashi Bereishit 25:32).

Esav reasoned: if I am going to die from the avoda then why would I want to be the Kohen, if you (Yaakov) want it so badly then you take it. Yaakov was well aware of the potential dangers but he was willing to take the risk, for he so badly wanted to serve Hashem. Esav did not wish to take the risk, being a Kohen to Hashem did not have meaning for him. For a Jew it is almost impossible not to wish to serve Hashem. The Jewish soul yearns to enter the Mikdash and serve Him.


Chazal teach us that at Har Sinai the Jewish people felt so close to Hashem, so full of yirat Shamayim, that whoever sinned felt a great sense of shame. Whoever did not learn Torah or acted improperly in some other manner was greatly embarrassed. In addition to the Torah itself, it was this feeling of closeness to Hashem that constituted the great gift we received at Har Sinai.

At a later stage we received the gift of Eretz Yisrael - the Land of holiness. Many great countries exist, but we received the King's palace. Hashem went still further and gave us Yerushalayim and the Beit HaMikdash. We feel eternal gratitude to Hashem for these gifts. Baruch Hashem we learn in a Yeshiva which sits adjacent to the site of the Beit HaMikdash. As close as we feel, we must realize that it cannot compare to what we will feel, with Hashem's help, when the Beit HaMikdash is rebuilt when we will be able to offer the korbanot of Shavuot and other days. We yearn to view the Kohen Gadol's Avoda on Yom Kippur. As we mentioned, there are limitations regarding how close we can come, but we must yearn to be near Hashem.

We can find other ways of coming close to Hashem besides for entering the Beit HaMikdash. We have mentioned on several occasions that learning Torah brings us close to Hashem's thoughts, that tefillah creates an emotional bond between ourselves and Hashem, and that by performing acts of chesed we emulate Hashem Who only gives. When a person gives to another, he comes closer to Hashem, while when he takes he distances himself from Him. We hope and pray that Hashem will see our desire to come closer to Him and speedily in our day He will restore the Beit HaMikdash where we will be able to offer him our korbanot. Amen.

Venue: Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh


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