Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Shmini
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicatedin the memory of

Yaakov Ben Behora

Parashat Shmini

Aaron, Moses, and the High Priesthood

“Moses and Aaron went into the Tent of Meeting, and they came out and blessed the people, and God’s glory appeared before the entire nation.” Moses had the power to channel the blessing earthward and Aaron had the capacity to receive it for the entire Nation of Israel


Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaLevi Kilav

1. The Heart that Rejoiced
2. Unrewarded
3. Moses’ Mistaken Impression
4. A Combined Service

The Heart that Rejoiced
"On the eighth day, Moses summoned Aaron, his sons, and the elders of Israel" (Leviticus 9:1).
It is not written "On the eighth day, Moses said." Rather, "Moses summoned." In response, the Midrash comments:
"Moses said to Aaron, ‘God has commanded me to appoint you as High Priest.’
‘But Moses,’ replied Aaron, ‘You have worked so hard to build the Tabernacle. It would only be right that you should be the High Priest and not I.’
‘This is God’s command,’ said Moses. ‘I am just as happy and fulfilled as if I had been the one appointed. Just as you once rejoiced in my status, I am now rejoicing in your status.’

When did Aaron rejoice in Moses’ status? When God said to him, ‘Now go, I am sending you to Pharaoh.’ God said to him, ‘You have been designated to carry out this task.’
Moses said, ‘Do not take me, for my brother is older than I. How can I be the one to go to Pharaoh?’

God responded, saying, ‘You are correct. He is indeed older than you. All the same, "He will see you and his heart will rejoice."’
Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai taught: The Almighty said that the same heart that rejoiced at the status of his brother will have precious stones placed upon it, as it is written, ‘Aaron will thus carry the names of Israel’s sons on the decision breastplate over his heart...’ (Exodus 28:29). Therefore, all seven days wherein Moses worked to build the Tabernacle, he sprinkled the blood and offered the fats. The Almighty said to him, ‘Do you think that you will become the High Priest? Summon Aaron and his sons so that they may serve.’ Hence, ‘On the eighth day....’ And why the elders of Israel? In order to elevate him before the elders. The Almighty said, ‘Summon the elders and anoint him, and I will elevate him before them, so that they not say that he appointed himself to the position of High Priest.’"

Aaron merited wearing the breastplate over his heart because he rejoiced in his heart over the honor which was accorded his brother Moses. Yet, why did Moses not merit some reward as well? After all, according the above Midrash, he too rejoiced at the status of his brother Aaron. Not only was Moses not rewarded, it appears that he was even led to believe that he would be appointed to the position of High Priest. During the first seven days of installation, he was the one who performed the Divine service in the Tabernacle, but on the eighth day God informed him that Aaron, instead of he, would hold the position of High Priest.

It would appear from this Midrash that Moses had for seven days resisted fulfilling God’s commandment to go to Egypt and appear before Pharaoh. In return, he served during the seven days of installation under the impression that he would be the High Priest. In the end, however, the Almighty informed him that Aaron would be the one to receive this position, for Moses himself had testified to Aaron’s superiority.

It is possible to explain that because Moses’ original request was fulfilled, he did not deserve any reward. Yet, the very fact that he requested to pass on greatness to his brother certainly made an impression upon Moses causing him to merit many things. In addition, Aaron rejoiced first at the greatness of Moses, and Moses responded, saying, "Just as you rejoiced at my happiness, so I rejoice at your happiness. Moses’ is clearly a less commendable act than Aaron’s.

Moses’ Mistaken Impression
The question that remains, however, is why Moses should have believed that he was destined to become the High Priest. After all, he was commanded in the twenty-eighth chapter of Exodus to prepare eight priestly vestments for Aaron and four for his sons, and they were anointed with the anointing oil and all of Israel was well aware of this. In addition, Aaron and his sons sat at the entrance of the Meeting Tent during the seven days of installation in preparation for priesthood. Why should Aaron have needed to be informed of his High Priesthood - not to mention before the elders of Israel.

It would seem that it was clear that Aaron and his son’s were destined to become priests and that Aaron would serve while wearing the eight priestly vestments, for this is the law regarding the High Priest. Indeed, Divine service in the Holy Temple embodies two aspects. First, it calls for the sacrificial offering of animals and the performance of the entire Temple service in the manner that the Torah dictates. The second aspect involves causing the Divine Presence to dwell in the Holy Temple. Such dwelling does not a necessary result from the hallowed service. The Talmud (Yoma 21b) informs us that despite the fact that the Second Temple contained the same furnishings and vestments as the First Temple (with the exception of the Ark of the Covenant), and the Divine service was carried out in accordance with the requirements of the Torah, the Divine Presence did not dwell therein as it had in the First Temple. The dwelling of the Divine Presence, which found expression in flames that fell from Heaven upon the altar, in the prophetic vision of the High Priest when he sought the advice of the Urim and Tumimin in the decision breastplate, and more, derived from the character of the High Priest.

The Talmud (Makkot 11a) tells us that the High Priest bears the responsibility of offering supplications on behalf of his generation so that people not be killed accidentally. Maharasha explains that this is the responsibility of the High Priest because he offered a prayer on the Day of Atonement that transgression be atoned for so that the death sentence be annulled and that the wicked repent so that the evil decree upon them be nullified. And if this was the responsibility of the High Priest, then clearly he was capable of such. The reason for this is that there are two forms of Divine dwelling among the nation of Israel. The first is that of prophetic vision which was derived from Israel’s spiritual aspect. The second involved life improvement for Israel on a physical level. The Urim and Tumim were resorted to for practical national questions like whether or not to declare war. When King David inquired of the Urim and Tumim via Evyatar and was not answered, and then via Tzaddok and was answered, he knew that Evyatar had to be removed from his position as High Priest and replaced by Tzaddok (see Yoma 73b).

A Combined Service
When Moses requested that Aaron be sent before Pharaoh, it was not only because he felt that Aaron was grater than he. It was also because we find that the Divine Service is carried out by the firstborn. The firstborns, because they are the eldest, are capable of causing the Divine Presence to rest among the People of Israel such that the nation be blessed in all mundane matters. This was Moses’ thinking. He believed that the redemption of Israel had to come through the oldest of the two brothers if the nation were to merit complete and eternal freedom. God responded, "Indeed, you responded appropriately by saying that he is greater than you. All the same, it is you who have been chosen for this task." The reason for this is that the Exodus from Egypt is unlike any other favor which God shows His nation. While other assistance came from below, the exodus from Egypt came from above. Only Moses was fit for bringing about this kind of assistance, for he acted on a lofty spiritual level. Though the purpose of the Sanctuary is to bring physical betterment to the Jewish people and to atone for their sins, the matter originates with Moses who is a prophet, and whose unique power rests in his spiritual supremacy. This being the case, it would seem that he is also the appropriate candidate for the position of High Priest. That is, though the actual service could be carried out by Aaron and his sons in their priestly vestments, the inner core of the Temple - the key to the dwelling of the Divine Presence - would be filled by Moses. In this sense he would be considered the High Priest.

Indeed, while Moses served during the seven days of installation it really appeared to him that he would be the one to receive the post of High Priest and that through him the Divine Presence would rest upon the Sanctuary. The Almighty, though, had designated Aaron to this position. God wanted for the elders of Israel to be present at the inception of the High Priesthood. The High Priest was destined to do more than just wear the priestly vestments. He would be responsible for channeling the Divine bounty via the Sanctuary. This is the physical sanctity possessed by the priests - Aaron at their head. He channels this sanctity to all aspects of Israel.

Just as Israel’s purpose derives from above, so too, the sanctity of the priesthood and all that it embodies in the lofty inward sense was initiated by Moses. All the same, it was not the seven days of service performed by Moses that caused the fire to descend from heaven. Neither was it the service of Aaron which caused this. Rather, it was the service of the two of them combined which brought this about. This can be seen in the in Rashi’s commentary on the verse, "Moses and Aaron went into the Tent of Meeting, and they came out and blessed the people, and God’s glory appeared before the entire nation" (Leviticus 9:23). Moses had the power to channel the blessing earthward and Aaron had the capacity to receive it for the entire nation of Israel. From that point onward, others were no longer capable of receiving in this manner - it was carried out by Aaron and his offspring for all generations to come.
Some of the Biblical and Midrashic verses in this article were taken from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s "The Living Torah" and from the same Rabbi’s translation of "Meam Loez."

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