‘Church and State’ Parashat Beha’alotecha 5778

In the first verse of Parashat Beha’alotecha, Hashem commands Aharon to light the menorah in the Mishkan [Bemidbar 8:2]: “When you light the lamps, the seven lamps shall cast their light toward the face of the menorah”. The location of this commandment is odd. One would have expected that the commandment to light the menorah would appear at the end of the Book of Shemot, where the Mishkan is consecrated. There we are told [Shemot 40:25] “[Aharon] lit the lamps before Hashem as Hashem commanded Moshe”. Presumably, Hashem had already told Aharon how to light the menorah. Indeed, the word “lit” – “va’ya’al” – in the Book of Shemot employs the same verb as the word “when you light” – “beha’alotecha” – in the Book of Bemidbar. Why does Torah wait so long to divulge this information?

Rashi answers this question by noting the juxtaposition of this episode with the previous episode at the conclusion of Parashat Naso. That episode describes in detail the offerings of the Princes of the Tribes over the days that the Mishkan was consecrated[1]. Even though each prince brought the exact same offering, the Torah still lists the content of each and every one of the offerings in gory detail. Rashi, quoting from the Midrash Tanchuma, explains, “Why is the portion dealing with the menorah adjacent to the portion dealing with the tribal princes? For when Aharon saw the consecration [offerings] of the tribal princes, he felt distressed over not joining them in this dedication, neither he nor his tribe. So Hashem said to him, ‘By your life, yours is greater than theirs, for you will light and prepare the lamps.’” Aharon felt left out so Hashem threw him a bone?

Rav J.B. Soloveichik, writing in “Days of Deliverance”, shines a geopolitical light on Rashi’s explanation. Imagine the twelve Princes of the Tribes in the year 5778 participating in the consecration of the third Beit haMikdash. Each prince would arrive in his Mercedes S-Class, ensuring that the media filmed him stepping out of the car and waving to the crowd. At the consecration ceremony, he would speak from a podium, his words etched into internet posterity. There would be lights, cameras, and plenty of action. Everything the politician does is for the public eye, designed to maximize his exposure. Rav Soloveichik sums it up: “Day after day, the political leaders, those who lead the people in the field of government, are showered with recognition. They are present at every celebration and seem to be honoured for everything. The common folk understand political victories very well – struggles with swords and bows, leading men into battle.”

Aharon felt “distressed”, not only because neither he nor any other representative of his tribe – the Tribe of Levi – was present at the consecration ceremony, but because everything that Aharon represented was purposely kept outside of the public sphere. He worked inside the Mishkan, far from the prying eyes of the media. Once a year he, and only he, was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies. There is no holier place on earth, and yet Aharon entered, did what he was commanded to do, and left, without one iota of fanfare. In the words of Rav Soloveichik, when compared with the Princes of the Tribes, Aharon felt “forgotten and abashed, because no one remembered him, no one praised him, his work was ignored”. Hashem comforted Aharon by telling him that his contribution was as great as that of the princes and that his role – the role of the unremarkable Jew working silently behind the scenes – would propel the Jewish people forward when there were no princes to be found. “I promise that your array of lights will not be extinguished by destruction or by exile; your Chanukah (consecration) is the everlasting Chanukah.”

I would like to propose an explanation that is similar to and yet different from the explanation of Rav Soloveichik. I suggest that the tension between the Princes of the Tribes and Aharon is an archetype for the tension between political leadership and religious leadership, or in their distilled states, between politics and religion.

Rav Soloveichik identifies one of the sources of tension: the political leader operates in the public sphere while the religious leader operates in the private sphere. I suggest that a careful reading of the verses and of Rashi’s comments can help unearth what I believe to be the primary source of tension between the two.

According to the Midrash brought by Rashi, Aharon is “distressed” because neither he nor anyone else from the Tribe of Levi have brought any offerings to the consecration of the Mishkan. Prima facie, Aharon had no reason at all to be distressed. On the contrary, even though the Princes of the Tribes brought an array of offerings, all of their offerings were worthless until Aharon or some other Kohen offered them as sacrifices on the altar. Aharon seemed to be holding the winning hand.

Except that Aharon was smart enough to understand that the politicians were holding all the jokers. If Aharon is relegated to offering their sacrifices, it means that the religious leader is subservient to the political leader, putting him on a lower level. This is the tension that Hashem sought to ease. When Hashem tells Aharon that he will be lighting the menorah, Hashem is giving Aharon a task that is his and only his. Hashem is telling Aharon that his relationship with the Divine is independent of the offerings of others. He is telling Aharon that religion and politics do not operate on the same plane and so one cannot and should not be subservient to the other.

This idea can be better understood if we take a closer look at offerings of the Princes of the Tribes. Rav Ezra Bick notes that whenever the Torah discusses a sacrifice that is burnt upon the altar, it uses the word “va’yakter” – “it turned to smoke”. Rav Bick suggests that this word is more than just a description of the chemical reaction that occurs when animal flesh is heated over a flame. He proposes the following thesis: There is nothing less G-dlike than a cow. If a person were to search for holiness, possibly the last place that he would look would be in a barn. Yet all animal sacrifices come from livestock. Nevertheless, after the animal is burnt on the altar, a physical change takes place. What was once flesh, blood, and hamburger meat is transformed into a cloud of smoke. The sense of smell has always been identified as the most spiritual of the five human senses and so flesh turning into smoke is a metaphor for material turning into spirit. When a sinner offers a sacrifice, he watches as the animal turns to smoke and he recognizes that he is not doomed to remain a beast.

A political leader lives in the trenches. He deals with people and with topics that are all too often, well, less than pristine. It is the nature of the beast. To compensate for this, the Torah levies copious laws on our leaders to ensure that they remain within a certain halachic framework. Their relationship with Hashem is through sacrifices. They must strive to find the holy within the profane, even if all they can hope for is smoke.

Aharon’s relationship with Hashem is different. Aharon lives in the synagogue and in the Beit Midrash (House of Study), surrounded by holiness. Hashem tells Aharon that he will “light and prepare the lamps”. Aharon does not have to see through the smoke. His line of sight is clear and so Hashem promises him that He will light the way.

Rav Eliyahu Zinni says that there is no confrontation between Torah and science, only between Torah scholars and scientists. Science answers questions that begin with the words “What” and “How” while religion answers questions that begin with the word “Why”. The two do not operate on the same plane, and so one cannot be subservient to the other. Science requires the ingenuity to peer through the smoke to glimpse the hidden face of the Divine while religion requires the courage to advance when we are staring Him in the face.


Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5778

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Tzvi ben Freida, and Tzvi ben Shoshana

[1] My wife, Tova, notes that this episode is also out of place. It should be located at the end of the Book of Shemot, along with instructions for the lighting the menorah. The truth is that the chronology of the Book of Bemidbar is anything but clear, but this is a topic for another shiur.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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