By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Fresh from the lessons of Purim, having been mekabel the Torah mei’ahavah, we encounter Parshas Shemini, which offers us uplifting lessons to illuminate 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” (Shemos 14:14).
Chazal state that this advice is eternally relevant, pertinent today as then. There are times when we must speak up and times when we should remain silent, times to do battle and times to be passive.
As the Jews stood at the Yam Suf with nowhere to go and the Mitzriyim quickly catching up to them, Hakadosh Boruch Hu told Moshe that it wasn’t a time to stand in lengthy prayer: “Lo eiss atah leha’arich b’tefillah.” While in a time of danger we normally cry out to Hashem for salvation, this time was different.
There is an “eis,” a time, for everything, as 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” is determined by the 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. His reactions are dictated by the Torah.
In Parshas Shemini, we learn that Aharon Hakohein felt unworthy when he was selected to perform the avodah in the Mishkon. 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. On their own, they decided that they were to bring an offering of flaming ketores. The posuk (Vayikra 10:1-2) states, “Vayakrivu lifnei Hashem eish zora asher lo tziva osam – They brought a strange fire that they were not commanded to do.” Because of that, a fire that emanated “milifnei Hashem” killed them.
The Torah refers to the fire they offered as “strange” and explains what was strange about it: asher lo tziva osam, it wasn’t commanded. It was their own idea, and thus it was strange and unwanted. They may have meant well, and they wanted to share in the great celebration and help out in the consecration of the Mishkon, but because it wasn’t based on Torah or mesorah, it was strange and unwanted. Thus, a fire went out milifnei Hashem and smote them.
People who act based upon their own thinking, ignoring or twisting halachah and mesorah to comply with what they think is necessary and makes sense are unwanted and are playing with fire.
This is not only directed at those who claim to be adapting Orthodoxy to fit with the times, but also those who believe that they possess the ability to divine on their own the proper course of action in any given situation.
Our history is full of exceedingly humble men who kept themselves out of the limelight until their leadership was demanded. The Chazon Ish learned quietly by himself, his brilliance known to few. But when he arrived in Eretz Yisroel and people began turning to him, he emerged like a triumphant general, leading the fledgling Torah world and presiding over the growth of an empire.
His brother-in-law, the Steipler Gaon, was viewed as a batlan until the baton was passed to him. He then roared like a lion and showed the way as the Am HaTorah was faced with unprecedented challenges. His colleague, Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach, was viewed much the same until his senior years. He fully immersed himself in Torah learning until he reached a new chapter in his life, when he was called to lead. The gentle giant shocked all who knew him as he became the undisputed leader of the Torah world, guiding a nation with his knowledge of Torah and the lessons taught him by his rabbeim, primary amongst them the Brisker Rov.
Likewise, Rav Yosef Sholom Elyashiv was a masmid who learned in his own little corner until the day Rav Shach told him that it was time to serve the klal in his place.
Klal Yisroel, Rav Akiva Eiger once said, has a chush harei’ach, a sixth sense, about who their gedolim are. There is no preparatory school, no route one takes to get to the top. Rather, the people themselves know who should lead them.
Throughout the ages, our leaders were trained and formed in the crucible of Torah. Our people never looked to those who pushed themselves and forced themselves into positions of influence. Torah is the domain of the humble and the self-effacing.
Nodov and Avihu were well-intentioned, but their gaavah misled them and caused them to be lost to the Jewish people. So often, we see people embroiled in self-destructive behavior and machlokes, ruining themselves and others for no apparent reason. When we look deeper, we see that gaavah is at the root of the problem.
Humility doesn’t mean that it is not important to be confident in our abilities. Humility means that although we appreciate our attributes, we accept upon ourselves the kevias ittim of Torah. We recognize that we are under the jurisdiction of the laws and moral demands of the Torah. We don’t think that we are smarter or better than those who came before us. We don’t speak out of turn, and those of us who are not fully versed in halachah and hashkofah defer to those who are. We don’t make our own rules and set our own guidelines that are not in keeping with the way our people have been conducting themselves over the past millennia.
Because of his humility, Aharon Hakohein merited a life of closeness to Hashem, working in the Mishkon. He sought to distance himself from leadership, for he felt himself unworthy, but once he was commanded to rise, he fully embraced the position. 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.
Upon the demise of Nodov and Avihu, the Torah tells us, “Vayidom Aharon.” Their great father, the kohein gadol, who had just initiated his role in the Heichal Hashem, was silent. Aharon, a competent and experienced communicator, was undoubtedly able to express himself very well. 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 that is what was demanded by the Torah during this “eis.”
It was an eis lishtok.
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 halachah 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.”
Sometimes, silence is the correct response.
In life, we are often tested. Sometimes, it is proper to speak up. Other times, the best reaction is to remain silent.
When there is no mesorah for how to respond, we remain silent and wait for those more qualified than us to speak and provide direction. We don’t rush headstrong into new storms. We don’t view ourselves in grandiose terms, as if we are able to chart the proper course.
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.
The depth of his reward is that there is no mandate to be quiet or 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.
That is the message of this week’s parsha and the lessons of gedolei Yisroel, who, as different as they may have been in outlook and temperament, shared the dual characteristics of humility to follow and courage to lead.
Chazal teach that “seyog lachochmah shtikah,” the key to wisdom is to remain silent. Don’t speak when you are not called upon. Don’t engage in idle talk. Don’t be quick to judge and mock other people. Don’t speak about matters publicly without knowing the facts. Silence is the sign of intelligence, because, often, the most prudent way to respond is through silence.
There are many issues regarding which we have no clear guidance. There are so many things that transpire that we don’t understand. We must bend our ears to the Torah and hear what it says. In times of happiness and not, we have to think about how the Torah would want us to act. What would our parents and grandparents say? How would they react? What would our rabbeim say? They knew better, and they know better, because they know how to be kovei’a ittim al pi haTorah, and we have to learn from them to be quiet, tzonua and humble, and how to be mekabel din and tochachah.
“Vayidom Aharon.” When his sons were killed on the day of the chanukas haMishkon, Aharon was silent. He didn’t wail and he didn’t scream. Rather, he accepted what happened, knowing that Hashem willed it so. And because he was quiet at that moment, he merited speaking to Hashem and to the Jewish people and performing the avodah. His silence paved the path for his family for generations to come and for Jewish leaders for all time.
Was he quiet or talkative? He was neither. He was an eved Hashem, devoted to following Hashem’s will, perceiving the change in ittim and reacting. He knew that nothing happens out of happenstance, and if tragedy occurs, it is because Hashem willed it so. Our duty is to accept what Hashem has done and wait until another day to properly comprehend what transpired.
The person who lives with bitachon is at peace. Current events don’t shake him. He is not easily rattled. No matter what happens, he is able to maintain his equilibrium. Vayidom Aharon. Because he was a man of faith and didn’t become rattled, he was able to see the big picture and recognized that a kiddush Hashem was created by the deaths of his sons. He thus returned to the avodah “ka’asher tzivah Hashem,” for as a humble, G-d-fearing person, he knew that his role was to submit to the ratzon Hashem.
Following the Holocaust, there were two courses of action for survivors. Their harrowing experiences left many forlorn and broken. They lost their will to live and felt that Hashem had forsaken them. And who can blame them? They couldn’t recover.
But there were people whose emunah was stronger, and although they had lived through those same experiences as the people who became depressed and lost, they put their lives back together, established new homes, and found what to celebrate about as they went on to live productive lives of “vayidom,” neither complaining nor becoming immobilized by their multiple tragedies.
Far be it from us to comprehend what they lived through or to judge the people who were subjected to sub-human abuse, but we can learn from their examples. Each one of those people, from the simple Jews to the venerated leaders, is a hero to our nation. Together, they helped rebuild and resurrect a decimated people following the war. Their bodies were ripped apart, their families were destroyed, they were penniless and lonely, but their souls remained whole and pure.
Whatever life does to us, we must remain whole and unbroken. Sometimes, the temptation is to fall apart and break down. If we can rise above our experiences in a state of “vayidom,” we can bounce back and resurrect ourselves, triumphing despite many setbacks. Of course it’s easier said than done. Oftentimes, we need the help and reassurance of good people to keep us on track, but survival and endurance beat the alternative.
For years, we have been writing about the plight of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, sentenced to 27 years of prison. We have been writing of the fallacies in the case brought against him. Many have doubted his version and gravitated to the government’s charges that he was found guilty of causing a $27 million loss to the bank with which the company he worked for had a line of credit.
Last week, we reported about the overwhelming evidence of prosecutorial misconduct, proving that his sentence is uncalled for. Notes from a 2008 meeting of government officials were presented, as were legal affidavits that show that what Sholom Mordechai has been saying is true.
Rubashkin lawyers offered testimony from people interested in purchasing the plant that the government caused them to withdraw their bids because of threats of forfeiture and demands that no member of the Rubashkin family be involved in management of the plant they built and ran.
Paula Roby, a lawyer for the bankruptcy trustee, testified falsely that there was no attempt by the government to prevent any members of the Rubashkin family from being employed by the plant under new owners.
In her written decision finding Sholom Mordechai guilty and declaring the amount of the loss, U.S. District Judge Linda Reade wrote that she accepted Roby’s testimony and determined that the prosecutors did not cause the value of the business to plummet. It was all Sholom Mordechai’s fault, and for that he has to sit in jail for 27 years.
The new evidence presented to the court conclusively proves that the government knowingly presented false and misleading testimony and withheld exculpatory evidence.
This man, whose business was taken from him, whose reputation was ruined, and who was left penniless and has been separated from his family and society for almost seven years thus far for a crime he did not commit has good reason to be depressed and bitter, yet his faith remains solid and he remains devoted to Hashem and His Torah. He is happy in the knowledge that he was chosen to suffer for his people and is performing his duty behind bars. He knows that he will be released when Hashem determines that his mission behind the barbed wire has been fulfilled, and he eagerly awaits that day.
No matter where we are, a Jew is always home, surrounded by opportunities to accomplish and prevail, though each place, season and moment has a specific avodah. We are never alone if we are ensconced in the “dalet amos shel halachah,” governed by the halachos and hashkafos of the Torah.
May the clarity of emunah and bitachon light up our paths, so that we merit living as ehrliche Yidden, servants of Hashem, and welcoming Moshiach tzidkeinu bekarov.