The “Little Things” Aren’t So Little…

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Imagine we were chairing a dinner, and assigned the task of introducing the honoree.  But this honoree isn’t just a wonderful, accomplished person deserving of respect and warm accolades.  He is the one of the most righteous, humble, sacred people who ever walked the earth.  Not only was he chosen by the dinner committee to receive an honor – he was chosen directly by Gd for what is perhaps the most distinguished, important job in the world.   

What would we say about him?  How would we begin to praise him, to capture his greatness? 

Aharon was chosen to serve as our nation’s first kohen gadol (high priest).  This meant that his descendants – and only his descendants – would be given the privilege of ministering before Gd in the Bet Hamikdash.  It also meant that he was the only person in his time allowed to enter the kodesh hakodashim – the inner chamber of the Bet Hamikdash – to offer the atonement sacrifices on Yom Kippur.  Aharon was so righteous that when his two sons were killed in the most tragic circumstances, he kept silent, without questioning Gd for a moment.  He worked tirelessly to resolve conflicts, saving countless marriages and friendships.  Imagine what kind of praise would be spoken about him if he were to be chosen as the honoree at a community fundraiser! 

Now let’s see how the Torah decided to praise Aharon. 

The opening verses of Parashat Behaalotecha, which we read this month, present the mitzvah of kindling the menorah in the Bet Ha’mikdash.  After stating Gd’s instructions to Aharon regarding this mitzvah, the Torah writes, “Vaya’as ken Aharon” – Aharon did as he was told (8:3).  Rashi explains, “Lehagid shevaho shel Aharon, shelo shinah – This speaks in praise of Aharon, that he did not deviate.” 

Aharon is praised for not deviating from Gd’s commands, and kindling the menorah precisely as he was instructed. 

Many later commentators wondered why this is the way the Torah chose to praise Aharon.  Would we have ever imagined Aharon disobeying Gd’s instructions, and lighting the lamps of the menorah in a different way?  And is obeying these laws such great praise?  Is this the more profuse praise that can be given to Aharon?  What was so praiseworthy about Aharon’s compliance with these laws? 

To find our answer, let us contrast two stories told later in this parashah. 

Like Children Running From School 

Parashat Behaalotecha tells of Beneh Yisrael journeying from Mount Sinai, where they had been encamped for nearly a year: “Vayis’u mehar Hashem – They journeyed from the mountain of Gd” (Bamidbar 10:33).  After leaving Mount Sinai, the people began complaining about the conditions of travel, for which they were harshly punished. 

In between the story of the nation’s departure and the story of their complaints, the Torah interjects with two verses that tell us the prayers that Moshe would recite when the nation journeyed (“Vayehi binsoa ha’aron vayomer Moshe…”) and when they encamped (“Uvnuhoh yomar…”).  This pair of verses is surrounded by two unusual symbols in the Torah scrolls (written like an upside-down Hebrew letter nun).  The Talmud (Shabbat 116a) cites a view explaining that these symbols act like parentheses, indicating to us that these two verses do not really belong in this context.  The Torah placed these two verses here in order to make an interruption between two stories of calamity (“lehafsik ben pur’anut rishonah lefur’anut sheniyah”).  The Ramban, in his Torah commentary (Bamidbar 10:35), explains that the first “calamity” was Beneh Yisrael’s departure from Mount Sinai.  The Midrash describes the people leaving Sinai “like a child escaping from school,” running out as soon as he can before the teachers give more assignments.  The people received the Torah at Mount Sinai, which imposed upon them numerous obligations and responsibilities.  When the time came to depart Mount Sinai, the people left gleefully, relieved that they would not be receiving more mitzvot. 

This attitude was deemed a grave “calamity.”  So much so, the Ramban explains, that the Torah did not want to then immediately tell of the next calamity – the people’s complaints and their subsequent punishment.  The Torah found it necessary to separate these two unfortunate incidents by inserting between them the pair of verses that tell of Moshe’s prayers. 

Rav Leib Chasman (1869-1936) clarifies for us the particular severity of Beneh Yisrael’s hurried departure from Mount Sinai by noting how they needed to be persuaded to leave the shores of the Yam Suf.  Following the miracle of the sea, the Torah relates, “Vayasa Moshe et Yisrael miYam Suf – “Moshe had Israel travel from the Sea of Reeds” (Shemos 15:22).  Rashi, citing the Midrash, explains that Moshe had to force them away from the seashore.  After the Egyptian army drowned in the sea, the expensive jewelry with which they were adorned washed onto the shore, and Beneh Yisrael delightedly collected these riches.  The jewels kept coming, and so the people did not want to leave, preferring to collect as much wealth as they could.  The Torah therefore writes that “Moshe had Israel travel from the Sea of Reeds” – implying that he needed to force them away from the shore. 

It is this contrast, Rav Chasman explains, that made the nation’s frantic departure from Sinai so grievous.  When it came to the material riches that presented themselves at the seashore, Beneh Yisrael had all the time in the world, eager as they were to increase their fortunes.  But when it came to the spiritual riches of Sinai, the people felt they had enough, and even feared receiving more. 

This attitude is, indeed, a “calamity.”  It bespeaks a terrible lack of appreciation for the inestimable worth of mitzvot, for how precious a gift it is to serve the Almighty by obeying His commands.  The opportunity to perform a mitzvah is far more valuable than any jewel, than any amount of money.  Trying to escape from such opportunities, rather than enthusiastically embracing them, is truly a “calamity.” 

“Why Shall We be Deprived?” 

A bit earlier in this parashah, we encounter a group of people who displayed the precise opposite attitude toward mitzvot. 

One year after the Exodus from Egypt, Beneh Yisrael observed their first Pesach, offering the paschal sacrifice to celebrate the great miracle.  A group of men approached Moshe with a complaint – but the kind of complaint that religious leaders are happy to hear from their constituents.  These men had tended to a dead body, fulfilling the precious mitzvah of caring for the deceased, thus becoming teme’im (ritually impure), such that they were halachically barred from participating in the korban pesach. 

The people turned to Moshe and asked, “Lamah nigara” – “Why should we be deprived?”   

They were not relieved to have been spared from the obligation of bringing a sacrifice.  They felt deprived.  They understood what a special privilege every mitzvah is, and so they did not want to lose even a single mitzvah opportunity. 

Gd responded to their plea by establishing pesach sheni – the offering of the korban pesach one month later, on the 14th of Iyar, by those who were unable to do so on Pesach. 

These men exemplify for us the proper attitude toward mitzvot.  Rather than viewing them as a burden we are forced to bear, as an inconvenience we would prefer to avoid, we should instead rush to fulfill every mitzvah we can, recognizing that each one is a priceless privilege that Gd lovingly gives us. 

Precious Janitorial Work 

With this in mind, let us return to Rashi’s comments about Aharon. 

The mitzvah of the menorah actually consists of two parts.  Before the kohen gadol kindled the lamps of the menorah, he was required to clean them.  As we can imagine, this was pretty messy.  The kohen needed to remove the wicks and clean the soot from the lamps before he could put in fresh oil and wicks, and then light them. 

When Rashi writes that Aharon was praised “shelo shinah,” this might mean not that “he did not deviate,” but rather that “he did not differentiate,” he treated this task no differently than his other, more prestigious roles.  He did the janitorial work of cleaning the lamps of the menorah with the same enthusiasm and rigor with which he performed the special Yom Kippur service in the inner chamber of the Mikdash.  He made no distinction between the “dirty work” of tending to the menorah, and the other, more coveted jobs that he was given as the high priest. 

As the Mishnah in Pirkeh Avot (4:2) timelessly teaches, “Be as careful with the ‘light’ mitzvah as with the ‘stringent’ mitzvah.”  Once we understand and appreciate the priceless value of each and every mitzvah, our attitude toward all the mitzvot will be the same.  We will enthusiastically run to grab every mitzvah opportunity, whether it’s a mitzvah that brings us honor and respect, or a mitzvah involving a simple, everyday activities. 

This insight gives us a great deal to think about regarding our attitude toward the seemingly ordinary, unimpressive mitzvot.   

Baruch Hashem, there are many generous donors who eagerly give large sums of money for worthy causes, for which they are – appropriately – given public recognition and honor.  And there are, baruch Hashem, many talented rabbis, teachers and cantors who faithfully fulfill their duties in our synagogues, receiving well-deserved respect from the congregants whom they devotedly serve.  Let us ask ourselves, do we strive for these same standards of mitzvah performance when there is no public recognition to be had?  Are we as generous and selfless as we should be when we are approached privately by somebody in need of help, or when a friend or family member needs a simple favor?  Do we recite birkat hamazon after an ordinary Tuesday afternoon lunch with the same emotion as a cantor reciting musaf in a packed synagogue on a holiday?  Do we, like Aharon, perform our “janitorial” work, such as tending to our families and households, with the same devotion as we display while praying in the synagogue?  Do we appreciate the value of the “small” mitzvot the way we appreciate the value of the “big” mitzvot? 

Judaism must be observed both in public and private.  The Torah governs our conduct both in the synagogue and in our personal lives.  There are mitzvot that apply out in the open, in view of other people, and there are mitzvot which we must perform quietly, in private, when nobody is around.  And each and every one, without exception, is more valuable than we can ever imagine. 

Let us, then, recommit ourselves to the strict adherence of every mitzvah, even the seemingly “simple” ones, appreciating how precious an opportunity we have to serve Gd throughout day, every day, by living in accordance with the Torah’s laws and values.