Parshas Shemini: You Can in Fact Have Too Much of a Good Thing
You Can in Fact Have Too Much of a Good Thing
While so much of the attention in Parshas Shemini revolves around analyzing and assessing the sin of Nadav V’Avihu, my attention this year was drawn to a profound ma’amar Chazal found at the beginning of the parsha. As often is the case, gems can be found in the Torah just by having the proper sensitivity towards the subtle nuance of the language.
At the beginning of perek ט׳, Moshe instructs Aharon and his sons to bring an olah and a chatas as part of the inauguration of the Mishkan. In pasuk ז׳Moshe once again speaks to Aharon and instructs him that:
קְרַ֤ב אֶל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֙חַ֙ וַעֲשֵׂ֞ה אֶת־חַטָּֽאתְךָ֙ וְאֶת־עֹ֣לָתֶ֔ךָ וְכַפֵּ֥ר בַּֽעַדְךָ֖ וּבְעַ֣ד הָעָ֑ם וַעֲשֵׂ֞ה אֶת־קָרְבַּ֤ן הָעָם֙ וְכַפֵּ֣ר בַּֽעֲדָ֔ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָֽה׃
“Come forward to the altar and sacrifice your sin offering and your burnt offering, atoning for yourself and for the people; and sacrifice the people’s offering and make atonement for them, as the LORD has commanded.”
Rashi quoting the Medrash understands that the language of ‘קרב - come near’ seems unnecessary and that the Torah just should have begun the pasuk ‘ועשה - sacrifice the offering’. Why does Moshe need to encourage/ cajole Aharon to step forward?
Rashi answers that:
קרב אל המזבח. שֶׁהָיָה אַהֲרֹן בּוֹשׁ וְיָרֵא לָגֶשֶׁת, אָמַר לוֹ מֹשֶׁה, לָמָּה אַתָּה בוֹשׁ? לְכָךְ נִבְחַרְתָּ
Aharon was ashamed to approach the mizbeiach in order to bring the korbanos due to his role in the sin of the golden calf until Moshe essentially pushed him forward claiming that ‘לכך נבחרת - for this you were chosen’.
This language of לכך נבחרת has spawned a number of beautiful peshatim in the acharonim.
The Ba’al Shem Tov and others write that Moshe is communicating to Aharon thatvit is because of this very busha that you are demonstrating why you have been chosen to become the Kohein Gadol in the first place. Not that Moshe is in any way minimizing the severity of the cheit haeigel but rather is assuring Aharon that his basic modesty and capacity for shame is what is most desired in the role of the Kohein Gadol.
The Ksav Sofer says something even more radical. The gemarah in Sotah 22b says that the community should only appoint a leader who has a קוּפָּה שֶׁל שְׁרָצִים תְּלוּיָה לוֹ מֵאֲחוֹרָיו (a container of detestable objects - I.e past sins - that hang on his back). This kuppah keeps the leader modest, humble, and approachable. The Ksav Sofer said that that is what Moshe meant by the words לכך נבחרת - it is specifically because of the sin of the חטא העגל, not despite that sin, that you were chosen. The חטא according to Ksav Sofer only bolsters Aharon’s effectiveness as a leader, not diminishes it.
In reading through the Rishonim and Medrashim I was bothered by two questions. The first is that wouldn’t shame be an appropriate response to Aharon’s involvement in the חטא העגל. Even if Aharon himself did not build or worship the idol he definitely had some role. Why then would Moshe ask him למה אתה בוש? His shame would seem to be appropriate and well founded.
Secondly, leaving the pshatim of the Baal Shem Tov and Ksav Sofer aside, if in fact Aharon was experiencing shame then why is being told לכך נבחרת- that you were chosen for this - effective in helping to alleviate shame. If anything, the knowledge that he was chosen for the avodah might even increase his feelings of discomfort and self-castigation.
In answering these questions, I believe that it is helpful to think about a distinction made by both the ba’alei mussar and by the mental health professionals. Namely that there is a distinction to be made between various forms of shame. There are unhealthy feelings of embarrassment and shame that makes a person live a life of co-dependence and can lead one down the road of compromised values and of destructive timidity (לא הביישן לומד etc). On the flip side there are healthy feelings of shame which is often our higher consciousness or innate G-dliness reminding us that we have in some way compromised our values. That healthy shame is absolutely critical to maintain the necessary checks and balances for one’s moral compass.
Additionally, even within the category of shame that emanates from a healthy place and is a response to compromised values there still exists healthy shame and outsized shame. Outsized shame means that the response is too intense, long lasting, and crippling and that the intensity of the response might be disproportionate to the precipitating event. It is this outsized shame that can lead a person to feelings of inadequacy and depression.
While I would be loath to psychoanalyze Aharon Hakohein the Rishonim seem to indicate that what Moshe was doing was encouraging Aharon to move beyond this outsized shame emanating from the cheit ha’eigel. The Ramban makes this incredible ha’arah: (I have translated the passage in full below)
ויש אומרים היה אהרן רואה את המזבח כתבנית שור והיה מתירא ממנו נכנס משה אצלו אמר לו אהרן אחי לא תירא ממה שאתה מתירא הגס דעתך ובא קרב אליו לכך אמר קרב אל המזבח ויקרב אל המזבח בזריזות וטעם דבר זה כי בעבור שהיה אהרן קדוש ה' ואין בנפשו חטא זולתי מעשה העגל היה החטא ההוא קבוע לו במחשבתו כענין שנאמר (תהלים נא ה) וחטאתי נגדי תמיד והיה נדמה לו כאילו צורת העגל שם מעכב בכפרותיו
Some Rabbis say that Aaron saw the horned altar in the form of the bull and he was frightened by it. Then Moses came near and said to him, ‘My brother, Aaron, do not be afraid of that which you fear. Embolden yourself and come near it.’ This is why he said, draw near unto the altar, and Aaron drew near unto the altar — with zeal.” The reason for this apparition which Aaron saw in the altar was that since Aaron was the holy one of the Eternal, having no sin on his soul except for the incident of the golden calf, therefore that sin was firmly fixed in his mind, something like that which is said, and my sin is ever before me. It thus appeared to him as if the form of the calf was there in the altar preventing his attaining atonement through the offerings he was to bring.
In other words, Aharon saw the cheit ha’eigel everywhere he looked. The ‘sin was firmly fixed in his mind’. It was this outsized shame that Moshe was seeking to encourage Aharon to push through.
If the narrative is about Moshe beseeching Aharon to move beyond outsized shame, then we understand the encouraging words of לכך נבחרת. In a way that’s like Moshe telling Aharon ‘קרב אל המזבח - Draw close to the mizbeiach. Yes, you sinned but you are still beloved, you are still the representative of the people and of HKB’H. Your past deeds don’t define you and shouldn’t prevent you from fulfilling your holy mission in the world’.
These few words from the Torah together with Chazal’s interpretation sends a reminder from past millennia to man of any generation and in any milieu. Namely that shame, while healthy, can also eventually extol a sharp price and that within the world of sin and regret we can never lose sight of our fundamental majesty, greatness and G-dliness - כ לכך נבחרנו indeed.
Have a good Shabbos