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Parsha Shemini

03/28/2019 09:15:03 PM


At the height of the inauguration celebrations for the new Mishkan, Nadav and Avihu sinned by “bringing a strange fire before God” and tragically died on the spot, thereby marring the festivities and sending Aron and his sons into a state of mourning.  Given that the text itself is vague about the exact nature of Nadav and Avihu’ s sin, the Gemara suggests varying opinions for what their mistake was.  One of the opinions suggests that that they ruled on a Halachic question in the presence of their Rebbe, Moshe Rabeinu, and it was this disrespectful and audacious act that caused their deaths.  While the simple understanding of the value of not ruling in the presence of a Rebbe is that it is a matter of respect and courtesy, R’ Chaim Shmulevitz famously proved otherwise from a Gemara in Eruvin.  In a long discussion about ruling before a Rebbe, the Gemara explains that Yehoshua once ruled before Moshe, and this warranted the harsh punishment of Yehoshua never bearing children.  The background for Yehoshua’s mistake is in Parshas B’haloscha, when Eldad and Meidad were spreading their prophecy that Moshe would die and it would be Yehoshua who would bring the nation into Israel.  Before Moshe could respond to the crisis, Yehoshua interjected with his opinion, telling Moshe that he should destroy Eldad and Meidad for their brazenness to suggest that Moshe would not merit to bring the Jews to Israel.  In this scenario, Yehoshua’s interjection cannot be interpreted as disrespectful towards Moshe, because it was the very antithesis- a zealous loyalty to Moshe’s honor.  Unable to bear the remarks against his Rebbe, Yehoshua was standing up in absolute defense of Moshe, and as such, it seems strange that this violated the value of not ruling before a Rebbe.

Yehoshua’s scenario of ruling before Moshe seems to indicate that this strong Jewish principle is much more than the values of courtesy and respect- it is rather the very principle upon which Jewish perpetuation is predicated.  More than anything else, the core strength and vitality of Judaism is education and the transmission of Torah.  We can exist with or without a Temple, with or without a homeland or personal language, but the one thing that we simply cannot exist without is the process of teaching Torah.  From the time our identity was forged at Mt. Sinai by learning from the Almighty Himself, every learning occurrence mirrors that experience and confirms our commitment to that identity.  Adopting the attitude of “forever the student,” the Jew walks around with his ears always open, never relishing in what he does know but rather listening out for what he does not yet know.  It is for this reason that we refer to the most accomplished and acclaimed scholars as “Talmidei Chachamim,” a term that really means students of scholars, because it is their ability to remain students that has brought them their knowledge.  Unlike many other fields and sciences where time make us only smarter and provides new innovative approaches, learning Torah is unique in the sense that it usually forces one to work backwards to the source, using the ideas of those closer to us to reach further back to eventually relate all the way back to the Almighty.  From this perspective, speaking before a Rebbe undermines the very essence of the Jewish belief system and carries great severity, and even when it is not disrespectful to the Rebbe, it is still a mistake of losing one’s identity of being a student. 

Wed, June 7 2023 18 Sivan 5783