Beha’alotcha: The Greater Service

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beha’alotcha

“The Lord spoke to Moshe, saying:  Speak to Aharon and say to him, ‘When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand. . . .’ “(Bamidbar/Numbers 8:1-2)

Good evening! For those who just celebrated the holiday of Shavuot, I hope you had a wonderful and inspiring holiday. The weekly Torah reading rolls on (as it were) through the book of Bamidbar, or Numbers, so called for its theme of counting and organizing the Israelites as they prepare to go on their journey.

Last week, the portion ended with a dramatic scene: 12 princes, one from each of the 12 tribes, brought gifts of gold and silver for the dedication of the Mishkan. This week, the portion opens up with the commandment for Aharon and his sons- the priests- to light and maintain the menorah, or lampstand, in the Mishkan, as part of their daily duties.

In the Torah text itself, there is no particular connection of the narrative of the dedication to the giving of additional laws pertaining to the service in the Mishkan, but our friend Rashi brings an older midrash which sees the commandment to light the menorah as a consolation to Aharon, the High Priest.

Rashi’s comment goes something like this:

“Why was the section [of the Torah] pertaining to the menorah connected to the section of the princes? [who each brought a gift for the Mishkan in the previous chapter.] When Aharon saw the princes doing the dedication [of the Mishkan], his spirits fell, because he was not with them in the dedication- not him and not his tribe. So the Holy One said to him: ‘by your life! yours is greater than theirs, because you will light and maintain the menorah! ‘ ”

Remember, the tribe of Levi was separated from the other tribes, set apart for religious service to the community. So Aharon didn’t get to bring a gift of gold or silver, but according to the midrash, he was consoled with the idea that  the merit of his deed was even greater. Other commentators suggest that the menorah was assembled, lighted, and cleaned every day; this was not a dramatic act of great ceremony, but a quiet act of inner dedication and humble service.

What’s striking about the story Rashi brings is that Aharon, as High Priest, does all kinds of important rituals and is a great public leader among the Israelites. He even atones for the entire community on Yom Kippur, going into the Holy of Holies, where nobody else is permitted to enter! Given Aharon’s very prominent role in the life of Israel, the idea that simply lighting the lamps is of such importance reminds us that small acts which benefit others can be more important to the religious life of the community than even gifts of gold.

Think for a moment about a typical synagogue: there are countless small tasks that keep it going, from organizing the Torah readings to ordering the cakes and cookies to overseeing the budget and maintaining the building. Many of these tasks are true gifts of love performed by volunteers, often without recognition or public appreciation. What Rashi reminds us is that the merit of giving of oneself is great indeed, and should be honored greatly.

Shabbat Shalom,


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