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Home » Acharei Mot, Miscellaneous

Acharei Mot: For The People

Submitted by on May 2, 2016 – 10:08 amNo Comment | 2,925 views

A Sobering Moment

I remember my first “for the people,” moment. I was officiating at my first Bar Mitzvah as a rabbi. The sanctuary was filled to the brim and my aim was to impress. I offered a wonderful introduction to the Bar Mitzvah boy and a flowery reflection on his family after which the boy approached the podium and read his formal lines from a printed page.

I thought I was brilliant until a seasoned preacher approached me and offered constructive feedback. At a Bar Mitzvah, he said, try not to outshine the Bar Mitzvah Boy. This is his day so let him shine.

It was a sobering moment. An epiphany if you will. The pulpit is not for personal glory. It is for the congregation. The congregation is not there to help me shine. I am there to help the congregation shine. The people don’t gather to give me a pulpit. I have a pulpit because the people gather.

For The People

On Yom Kippur, the High Priest was resplendent in glory. He was the center of attention and the facilitator of atonement. When the day ended, the entire congregation followed him to his home and wished him a good and happy new  year. One would imagine that all this attention would get to his head, and perhaps it did at times, but mostly, it didn’t, because of the tone set by the first High Priest, Aaron.

When Yom Kippur arrived and the people beheld the High Priest enter the Holy of Holies in an aura of radiant sanctity, they were surely in awe. Before them stood a man, who was invited to G-d’s inner sanctum. It is true that while there, he advocated for the nation and beseeched G-d for their atonement, but surely they, the people, were secondary at such a sacred moment of intimacy with G-d.

But Aaron set a different tone. For him, it was all about the people. He did not don the High Priest’s vestments for his spiritual advancement. He did it for the people. This was a day dedicated to atonement of G-d’s children and because G-d needed someone to advocate for His children, Aaron was invited to the Holy of Hollies.

The people did not receive atonement because Aaron dedicated his moment with G-d for them. Aaron had a moment with G-d because the people needed atonement. Aaron was not invited to the Holy of Holies because he was holy. Aaron was invited “for the people.”

This was a pivotal moment that set the tone for Jewish leadership for all times. A Jewish leader serves the people. He is not lord over the people. His leadership is for the people, not over the people.

As G-d Commanded

We infer this from the last verse in the Torah about Yom Kippur. “this shall be as an eternal statute for you, to effect atonement upon the children of Israel, for all their sins, once each year. And he did as the Lord had commanded Moses.”

Rashi, the classic biblical commentator, wondered why the Torah tells us that Aaron “did this as G-d had commanded Moses.” If Aaron “did this,” performed the ritual of Yom Kippur, then it was obviously “as G-d had commanded Moses.” What other way was there? There were no alternate movements at that time to advocate deviation from the Torah. The only Jewish movement, was the one instructed by G-d to Moses.

Rashi thus inferred a special lesson from there words. “when Yom Kippur arrived, [Aaron] performed [the service] according to this order, and [this verse is written] to tell Aaron’s praise, namely, that he did not don those [special garments] for self-aggrandizement, but as one who is fulfilling the King’s decree [thus, “he did as the Lord had commanded”].

Aaron understood that it was not for himself. It was for the people.[1] The beginning of the verse specifies that atonement was to be received once a year. This means that we are given a grace period of 365 days,[2] but after that, the grace is removed and we require atonement. But when G-d first instructed Moses on the Yom Kippur rituals, the Tabernacle had only been standing for six months and ten days. 365 days had yet to pass. Jews were still in their grace period and atonement was not yet due.

It would have been understandable for G-d to skip Yom Kippur that year. Yet G-d instructed that it be observed. This could have implied to Aaron, that the purpose of Yom Kippur and the reason for his invitation to the Holy of Holies that year was not to procure atonement, but for his own edification.

The Torah thus informs us that Aaron made no such mistake. He understood from the very beginning that this was not about the leader, it was not about the High Priest. That always was and would always be about the people. Going forward in future generations, High Priests adopted this mentality. When they were in the Holy of Holies, they thought not a whit of themselves. They thought only of the people.

A Call To Action

We mentioned that the people need an advocate in the Holy of Holies. In as much as the people needed a High Priest, the High Priest needed a people. Should there not be a people, there would be no High Priest. His office flowed from the people and was for the people. Without the people, there is no leader.

The parallel to this is palpable in every synagogue. There is a rabbi, a leader that speaks from the pulpit. But the rabbi is the agent of the people. Without a people there is no need for a rabbi. But the corollary is this. The Rabbi can’t be successful on his own. For the rabbi to succeed in leading the congregation, the people must be active. If the people don’t lend a hand and they leave it all to the rabbi, the congregation cannot succeed. Because the rabbi cannot be a congregation.

In almost every congregation there is a relatively small group of people that invest in the congregation. These are the lay leaders and volunteers, supporters and promoters. They too do the work of the people; without the people, they would have no work. But they too, can’t do their job without the people. They too need help from the people.

The upshot is this. No Jew can abdicate communal responsibility and leave it to another. The rabbi can do his job, but he can’t do your job. The board and the president, the volunteers and supporters, can all do their job. But they can’t do your job. Without you, they would not be. It is because of you, that they invest all their work. You too must step up.

It is called a congregation because it is a congregational responsibility. A ship can only run if all hands are active. Those who sit back and let others pick up the slack, jeopardize the wellbeing of the boat. Don’t be the one to slack off. Attend classes and services. Volunteer for programs and fundraisers. Become active. Get involved. Don’t jeopardize your Shull’s boat. Instead, go out and rock it.

[1] See Leviticus 16:34. See Rashi ibid as elucidated by Rabbi Moshe Sofer in Toras Moshe.

[2] The length of a Jewish calendar year.

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