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So what for you are the most boring parts of the Torah, the parts that don’t obviously seem to convey any kind of meaning to you?
Speaking for myself, it was always the genealogy sections. These are the generations of so and so, every once in a while you find these sections and there’s always kind of seems to be a sign that it’s okay to kind of doze off for a little bit, not really pay attention, this stuff isn’t really all that important.
But, if you look at the eleh toldot sections, more often than not, you will find something really fascinating going on there. You will find generations that don’t seem to be generations. Their discrepancy problems that screamed out to the careful reader and the torah seems to be suggesting that to really understand what’s going on, you have to understand that it is not so clear who the real parent is and who the real child is. A good example of this I think occurs in this week’s Parsha.
In chapter 3 of Bamidbar, we read these words, v’eleh toldot Aharon uMoshe. These are the generations of Aaron and Moshe, beyom diber Hashem et-Moshe behar Sinai, on the day that God spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai. And the first question that comes to mind before you go any further is what do you mean that these are the generations of Aaron and Moshe on the day that God spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai? The children that we are about to hear name, were they born on the day that god spoke to Moshe at Har Sinai? So why are you mentioning that fact, what would be wrong to just say, these are the generations of Aaron and Moshe and then listed the kids but let’s keep that in mind and continue reading. V’eleh shemot benei-Aharon, and these are the names of the children of Aaron, habechor nadav the oldest one was known as Nadav. And then there was Avihu, and Elezar and Itamar. Eleh shemot benei Aharon. These are the names of the children of Aaron and then another thing that strikes as you read, why do you have to mention that twice? You begin by saying these are the names of the children Aaron, you listed their names and you said these are their names. Okay, I get that already, those are their names. I mean as a matter of fact, if you have left out these are the names, these are the names entirely that would have been understandable too. Why does the Torah emphasize so much, these are the names, these are the names?
Anyway, vayamat nadav va’avihu lifnei Hashem, Nadav and Avihu died before God, behakrivam esh zarah lifnei Hashem, when they brought a foreign fire before God, bamidbar Sinai, in the desert of Sinai, ubanim lo-hayu lahem, they didn’t have any children when that happened, vaychahen elazar v’itamar al-penei aharon avihem, Elezar and Itamar took over their roles and the life time of Aaron, their father.
Okay, this is the section I want to talk about with you and in addition to the questions I have just asked, I want to throw in another one here, which is, if you are really giving me a list of children here, why is that I need to know in detail what happened to Nadav and Avihu here? You want to tell me they died, tell me they died but the circumstances of their death, I know all that already. I have read the book of Leviticus, I know how they brought this fire before God and they weren’t commanded to on the day that the mishkan was first inaugurated, they came with this incense pans and brought fire to the holy of holies and fire came and consumed them. I know all of these, so why are we rehashing that? You begin by telling eleh toldot, these are the generations, just give me the generations, that’s all. Don’t tell me all about these people.
So, we have a bunch of problems, looking at these texts but probably the largest problem, crops up at the very first verse, just read it one more time, these are the generations of Aaron and Moshe. But they are not the generations of Aaron and Moshe. We only get listed the children of Aaron. Why are you telling me these are the generations of both Aaron and Moshe when Moshe’s kids aren’t mentioned at all?
So it turns out that Rashi is actually bothered with this last question, quotes a Midrash that addresses it. Eleh toldot Aharon uMoshe v’eino mazkir ele beni Aharon, Rashi says, how come we only mention the children of Aaron? The Midrash says, well, the children of Aaron are actually called the generations of Moshe. Why, lefi shelimdan torah, because Moshe was the one who taught them Torah. Melamed, who teaches you, shekol hamelamed et ben chavero torah, anyone who teaches someone else’s child Torah, maaleh alav hakitov kelu yaldu, the text considers that as if the teacher has given birth to that child.
Now at first glance, when we read this Midrash, you know it doesn’t seem that impressive. There are a lot of questions that come to mind. Let me list one or two of them for you.
The children of Aaron were the only ones that Moshe taught Torah? Moshe taught Torah to 2.1 million people on the desert. How come they weren’t all his kids and plus if you want to tell me this nice homiletic idea that teaching someone Torah is like giving birth to them. You can tell me that anywhere in the Torah. Is there any particular reason why you would want to teach it here, in a verse that begins these are the generations of Aaron and Moshe? Why teach it to me with Moshe and particular with Aaron’s children? The answers to those questions are that the Midrash was probably sensitive to all the other questions we have asked about this story. For example, why were these the generations of Aaron and Moshe on the day that God spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai? Why emphasize these are the names of the children of Aaron, these are the names of the children of Aaron, why tell me about the death of Nadav and Avihu and the circumstances of the death, why tell me that they died lifnei Hashem, why tell me that they died while bringing a foreign fire before God, why tell me that their death happened beneath har Sinai, in the desert of Sinai, why tell me all these things? The Midrash responding to all of that too.
Here is the theory that I like to suggest to you. Let’s go back to that problem when we mentioned earlier about when these generations of Aaron and Moshe became the generations of Aaron and Moshe, v’eleh toldot Aharon uMoshe beyom diber Hashem et-Moshe behar Sinai, these are the generations of Aaron and Moshe on the day that God spoke with Moshe at Mount Sinai. What does that strange phrase mean? As we have mentioned before this isn’t when the children actually became the children of Aaron and Moshe, is it? Nobody was born on this day unless maybe they were. They were children of Aaron that were so to speak born on this day to Moshe. That’s really what the Midrash is telling us. The Midrash is saying the toldot of Aaron became the children of Moshe on the day that God spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai. When it says, beyom diber Hashem et-Moshe behar Sinai, don’t make the mistake of thinking, by the way, that means on the day that God spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai, at here does not mean ‘to,’ it means ‘with.’ On the day that God spoke with Moshe at Mount Sinai, there was a glorious mutuality that kind of back and forth, Moshe was relating to the divine as if an equal on top of Mount Sinai and here Moshe wasn’t taking the torah and Moshe taught it to everyone. But there were two people perhaps. Children of Aaron who would assimilate the torah so deeply that they weren’t just the students of Moshe, they were like his children. That maybe is what the Midrash is telling you. On this day, they became his children. They identified so powerfully with Moshe, they wanted nothing more then to be like Moshe and they sought to recreate the experience on the Mountain of Sinai and in the desert of Sinai.
If you listen to the language, that extraneous language that we are talking about that describes how the children of Aaron died. The language that describes their deaths eerily mimics what happened at the top of the mountain. For what indeed did happen on the top of the mountain, God came down in a cloud and fire and human being went to interact with the divine and there were tablets of the law, there were luchot and now one more time that was going to happen again except that wasn’t going to be on mount Sinai, it was going to be at midbar Sinai, it was going to be when there was a mischkan, a place for God’s presence and once again, there would be a cloud, hovering over the mishkan as the Torah itself describes this in Parshat Acherei Mot, that God appears on the Mishkan and the cloud hovering over the ark and what’s in the ark, the tablets. It’s another Mount Sinai experience once again and the second that the Mishkan was ready, Nadav and Avihu jumped into action and sought to commune with the divine. They sought to be just like Moshe. They weren’t commanded to but they wanted to. Listen to these names, the names that the Torah emphasizes, Nadav and Avihu, Nadav and Avihu,. What do they mean? Nadav comes from the word nadiv, which means to volunteer, the Avihu, it means my father is he. Such interesting names when you say especially in light of this fascinating Midrash. The volunteer and my father is he.
They volunteered to take on the mission of their mentor, the mentor who so deeply expressed what they wanted, that he was like a father, someone who would taught them Torah. Now they would be like that someone, they would volunteer to be like someone, they were not commanded to and in here lay their tragic end. I don’t want to get into in detail the reasons for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, I dealt with this in Parshat Shemini, I welcome you to go back and explore. But somehow they were seeking, on their own, to have the deepest, mystical encounter imaginable. The encounter that Moshe has with God and survives, but it is not a simple thing for a mortal flesh and blood human being to encounter the divine and survive, safeguards need to be taken.
The Torah enumerates those safeguards and Parshat Acherei Mot, in a response to the death of Aaron’s children. Here is how you can approach me, once a year, the cohen gadol, the high priest can come into the holy of holies, here is the safe way to do it. The children of Aaron lost themselves in the moment. It’s a glorious thing to encounter God’s presence but there’s a danger in that glory too.
At the end of the day, Moshe was Moshe, they were themselves. The Midrash is telling us something about that power of the teacher. Someone who teaches us Torah, it can be like they gave birth to him. There’s something wonderful about that. Anyone who has ever had a good teacher knows how wonderful that is. There’s something exhilarating about learning, the word of God and there’s something powerful and almost intoxicating about the relationship between a true teachers and their disciple. There’s something about that relationship that when it clicks, makes you want to become like them.
My father of blessed memory always used to say about psychiatry, he was a psychiatrist. He said you always needed a psychiatrist greater than you, who you can emulate. When you are keeping Torah, that kind of emulation is all the more alluring, you see in the possibility of emulating your teacher. The possibility of becoming more godly yourself and that’s a wonderful thing. But it can be a dangerous thing when it leads to loss of identity. When you, the student, forget who you are and lose yourself in the persona of your teacher.
Our teachers nowadays are not like Moshe, they are not engaged in actual communion with the almighty, an experience that if undertaken without proper safeguards can lead to death. So yes, death is not a possibility when a student over identifies with their teacher. But still, over identification with the teacher carries its dangers.
I will close with a quick story, I had a teacher once, a great teacher. It was my last year of high school at Yeshivat Nir Yisrael in Baltimore. I had asked this teacher if he would consent to giving an informal chaburah, a kind of session with just me and four or five other close friends. He agreed and we did this every Thursday evening from about 11 at night till about 12:30 in the morning. These sessions were magical, they introduced me to a way of thinking, the world of Jewish thought, that I had never touched before. They opened my eyes, I treasured these sessions and then one night, this great teacher went around the room, describing the strengths of these high school kids, challenging us to make the most out of these strengths, to sharpen our individuality and to become what we could and then, he said, he was stopping the sessions. He had given us what he could, it was time for us to spread our wings. I was devastated but in a way, it was his greatest act of teaching. In that act of letting go, he set us free. He grounded us in ourselves, he didn’t allow us to take the easy way out, to lionize who he was. We had to become who we could be.
So yes, the power of Torah is great, the power of a great teacher is immense but it is the student, you can never forget who you are.
1. Bereishit: Does Man 'Acquire' Woman?
2. Noach: Why Did God Destroy the World?
3. Lech Lecha: Covenant With God
4. Vayeira: Abraham's Struggle With Loyalty
5. Chayei Sarah: What Makes For A Successful Life?
6. Toldot: A Conversation For the Ages
7. Vayeitzei: Consequences of Jacob's Deceit
8. Vayishlach: Becoming a Person of Integrity
9. Vayeishev: Who Really Sold Joseph?
10. Miketz: Why Didn't Joseph Write Home?
11. Vayigash: The Epic Confrontation Between Judah and Joseph
12. Vayechi: Who is Joseph's Real Father?
13. Shmot: If Midrash is Real, Why Isn't It Peshat?
14. Bo: Did God Really Need Ten Plagues?
15. Beshalach: What Does It Mean to Have Faith?
16. Yitro: The Marriage of God and Israel
17. Mishpatim: Female Servitude...Wait, What?
18. Tetzaveh: Where Is God In a Physical World?
19. Ki Tisa: Moshe's Benevolent Chutzpah
20. Ki Tisa: Epilogue
21. Pekudei: A Giant Chiasm In Sefer Shmot
22. Vayikra: Can Leaders Make Mistakes?
23. Tzav: What Does It Mean To Survive?
24. Shemini: Why Did God Reject Nadav and Avihu?
25. Tazria: The Bizarre Purification of the Metzora
26. Metzora: Living Within the Community
27. Acharei Mot: The (Surprising) Purpose of Yom Kippur
28. Kedoshim: How Can I Achieve True Love?
29. Emor: What Sabbath Is All About
30. Behar: Why Does Land Have To Rest?
31. Bechukotai: Why Would God Curse His People?
32. Bamidbar: Who Cares About Genealogy?
33. Shelach: Is Hope Irrational?
34. Korach: Can We Influence God?
35. Chukat: Was Hitting the Rock So Horrible?
36. Balak: Balaam, Prophet For Hire?
37. Pinchas: What Does It Mean To Be Zealous For God?
38. Matot: Why Is The End of Bamidbar So Anticlimactic?
39. Masei: Why Is The End of Bamidbar So Anticlimactic? II
40. Devarim: What Does It Mean To Have Faith?
41. Eikev: What Does It Mean To Be A Good Person?- Part 1/2
42. Eikev: What Does It Mean To Be A Good Person?- Part 2/2
43. Re'eh: The Strange Laws Of Jewish Slavery
44. Shoftim: The Line Between Murder And Apathy
45. Shoftim: Epilogue 1
46. Shoftim: Epilogue 2
47. Ki Teitzei: The Hated Wife- Part 1/2
48. Ki Teitzei: The Hated Wife- Part 2/2
49. Ki Tavo: The Soliloquy Of The Farmer- Part 1/2
50. Ki Tavo: The Soliloquy Of The Farmer- Part 2/2
51. Nitzavim-Vayeilech: Where's the Happy Ending? - Part 1/3
52. Ha'azinu: A Unique Nation - Part 2/3
53. V'Zot Habracha: Looking Towards the Future - Part 3/3
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