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Home » Shmini

Shmini : Foundation of the Law

Submitted by on March 29, 2005 – 11:46 pmNo Comment | 26,177 views


It was a festive day. After months of preparation and seven days of training the priestly family was anointed. They donned the sacred vestments and inaugurated the sacrificial rite. Aaron, the High Priest, climbed to the top of the altar and offered up a sacrifice whereupon G-d’s presence descended upon the Jewish camp. (1)

This was a historic moment. It was the first time that man had reached beyond himself and summoned G-d’s presence.(2) Yet the Torah doesn’t refer to this day as a first, but as an eighth, because this day followed seven days of training. Indeed, this day’s achievements could not be divorced from the training period that preceded it, because it was the training that made this day possible.

Return to the Basics

Every achievement, every success, sits upon a foundation of instruction and training without which it could never succeed. Indeed, it is incumbent upon us to view our early instruction as the foundation of our later success.

To abandon that foundation is a betrayal of our training but to be shackled by it is to miss the entire point of the training. We must seek equilibrium, whereby we abide by the foundation we acquired in training but then improve upon it and develop ourselves beyond that original point.

To be sure, Aaron stood higher at this moment than during his seven days of apprenticeship, but he recognized that this achievement was made possible only by the training that Moses had offered during those seven days. To Aaron, this was not a beginning, but a continuation. This was not a first, but an eighth.foundation - innerstream

On this eighth day, Aaron did not abandon his training, he adhered to the fundamentals  taught to him by Moses. At the same time he also didn’t shackle himself to his training. When he saw an opportunity to improve upon his teacher he validated his training by doing so. This is how it happened.

The Argument

Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s two eldest sons, were especially moved by the sacred aura of the day. (3) Inflamed by spiritual passion they entered the holy of holies, a chamber of transcendental sanctity, and bathed in the bliss of pure ecstasy. So enraptured were they by their encounter with G-d that they refused to emerge from their enlightened state. Tragically, they didn’t survive. (4)

Moses instructed the Levites to remove the corpses from the tabernacle and then ordered the priests to proceed with the inaugural ceremonies. Elazar and Itamar, Aaron’s remaining sons, were in the midst of preparations for a sin offering that was to atone for the communal sin of the Golden Calf. A portion of the offering was to be consumed, by fire, upon the altar, and the remainder was reserved for the priesthood.

A priest in mourning is ordinarily excluded from the temple service. Accordingly, Elazar and Itamar, upon hearing of their brothers’ passing, refused to eat their portion, and placed it instead upon the altar. Moses was furious. He had been explicitly informed by G-d that the inaugural rite was bound by a special stipulation that required it to continue even in the case of bereavement.

Aaron, defending his sons, argued that the sin offering was not part of the overall inaugural ceremony. The inaugural rite, he reasoned, was unique and therefore bound by this special stipulation. The sin offering was a routine sacrifice, which belonged under the conventional rubric that denied participation to priests in mourning. Upon hearing Aaron’s argument Moses immediately acknowledged Aaron’s superior reasoning and publicly pronounced it the correct ruling. (5)

What enabled Aaron to detect this subtle distinction?

Besting the Instructor

Moses and Aaron were dominated by separate traits. Moses’ dominant trait was Emet, objective truth. He was, first and foremost, a man of truth and he judged all circumstances by that criterion. (6)

Objective truth maintains integrity at all times. It is unbending and impervious to the subtle changes in environments and individuals. What is true today must be true tomorrow and what is true for one must be true for the other. (7) Moses, a man of truth, was not intuitively conditioned to detect subtle nuance of distinction. He therefore understood the stipulation to cover the entire inauguration ceremony without distinction between unique and conventional offerings.

Aaron’s dominant trait was Chessed, kindness. A kind person is intuitively alert to subtle characteristics and nuanced differences. Individual needs vary from day to day and from person to person. Two people in similar circumstances may have completely different sets of requirements. Aaron, the kindhearted, was intuitively sensitive to these forms of distinction.

Conditioned to detect subtle nuance of distinction, Aaron immediately distinguished between the unique inauguration rite and the conventional sin offering.

On this day Aaron bested Moses, his former instructor. Moses recognized his student’s superior instincts and humbly acknowledged that Aaron, with his intuitive trait was better suited to this form of exegesis. (8)

Accepting the Fundamental Truth

Subtle distinctions discerned by a loving heart have their place in G-d’s law but they don’t give us license to dispute the Torah’s fundamental truth. Aaron accepted Moses’ law as G-d’s objective truth. He helped crystallize that truth by pointing out its subtle distinctions but even as he bested his teacher he never disputed the truth.


  1. Leviticus 9, 1 See commentary of Sifra
  2. Though G-d’s presence was manifest on numerous earlier occasions, such as Sinai, it was not summoned at a time of man’s choosing but of G-d’s, whereas now man could summon G-d’s presence almost at will every time he worshiped.
  3. The text in Leviticus 10, 1 suggests that they were punished for offering incense. There are in fact many differing views on the cause of their death See the commentary of Kli Yakar ibid for an overview and brilliant resolution. (R. Ephraim Shlomo of Luntshitz, 1550-1619)
  4. Leviticus 10 1. See also Leviticus 16,1 and the commentary of Ohr Chachaim  For further information see Sefer Maamarim 5746-5750 p. 256 (R. Sholom Ber Schneerson Fifth Rebbe of Lubavitch 1861 – 1920)  and Likutei Sichos v. XXXII p. 98 (R. Menachem M Schneerson, Rebbe Of Lubavitch, 1902 1994)
  5. Leviticus 10, 16-20. This essay follows Rashi’s interpretation.(Shlomo Yitzchaki, Scholar and author, eleventh century France)
  6. Shomos Rabbah ch.5, 10
  7. Chassidic Philosophy explains that objective truth is extant only in G-d’s realm. Our universe enjoys only relevant truths that play on the edges of objective truth. Relevant truths do adapt themselves to changes in their environments and frames of reference. Objective G-dl;y truth doesn’t. Yet the term “Relevant Truth” is not an oxymoron. For every idea, every object, has a kernel of truth in it without which the idea could not exist. This kernel is a glimmer of G-d’s objective truth. This is why there can be only one G-d though our universe supports a diversity of ideas. When the “Truth Kernel” in each of the ideas are compared we find that they are one and the same for they are each a reflection of the one universal, objective, G-dly truth.
  8. Likutei Sichos v.XXII p. 113

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