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Our wings to fly – In memory of Rav Chaim Kanievsky ztvk”l

In Parshat Shemini, we finally arrive at the moment we have been waiting for. Since Parshat Teruma, we have been focused on the construction and inauguration of the Mishkan, all of which was meant to facilitate the Shechina residing within the Jewish people. Parshat Shemini begins with Moshe’s announcement that the anticipated day has finally arrived.

Ziknei Yisrael and Nadav and Avihu
In order to perform the avoda that will generate Divine revelation, Moshe begins the parsha by calling “Aharon, his children, and the Ziknei Yisrael (Jewish elders)” to come to the Mishkan. His calling of the Ziknei Yisrael is surprising. Aharon and his children were needed to perform the avoda; why were the zekeinim summoned?

This mention of Ziknei Yisrael may be (at least part of) what inspired Chazal’s linkage of Nadav and Avihu’s punishment (described in the parsha’s next perek) to their disrespect for their elders — Moshe and Aharon.

The simple interpretation of the pesukim seems to link their punishment to the fact that they introduced a foreign fire — one that Hashem had not commanded them to bring. The end of Sefer Shemot repeatedly emphasized the need to construct the Mishkan as per the exact instructions given by Hashem to Moshe. Similarly, Sefer Vayikra begins by describing the details of the korbanot so that they too can be offered as per Hashem’s directions. Parshat Shemini continues emphasizing this point through the many times it stresses that the day’s avoda needed to be performed as Hashem had commanded. Nadav and Avihu were thus out of line by introducing a fire that was “foreign” to Hashem’s command.

The Sifra, though, explains that Nadav and Avihu were punished for disrespecting Aharon and not seeking Moshe’s advice. The Gemara describes them as having been moreh halacha bifnei rabam — they determined halacha on their own despite being in the presence of their Rebbeim, Moshe and Aharon. Chazal understood their sin to be not just what they did, but how they related to Moshe and Aharon.

Filling The Gaps
Moshe’s summoning of the Ziknei Yisrael aimed to emphasize their central role in decision-making regarding the avoda in the Mishkan. Hashem’s explicit instructions do not aim to cover all questions or scenarios that will inevitably arise. The Ziknei Yisrael are the ones meant to fill in these gaps.

The Sifra understood the end of Perek 9 as just such a situation. Despite having fulfilled the avoda as instructed by Moshe, Aharon was unsuccessful in causing the Shechina to appear and did not know how to rectify the situation. Heeding the implication of Moshe’s summons of the Ziknei Yisrael, Aharon turned to Moshe to ask for his advice and assistance. Only once Moshe joined Aharon in prayer to Hashem did Hashem’s fire appear. Aharon’s avoda was not enough to bring the Shechina. He needed Moshe Rabbeinu’s involvement as well. This is why, after beginning by emphasizing the importance of following Hashem’s instructions, the parsha continues by emphasizing the need to heed those of Moshe Rabbeinu as well.

The same Sifra presents the background to Nadav and Avihu’s sin in a very similar way. They too had been involved in the avoda and were trying to figure out how to get the Shechina to appear. The difference between them and their father Aharon is that they consulted no one. They decided that bringing their own fire was the right way forward and proceeded as such. The issue was not just what they did, but the fact that they did not consult with Moshe, Aharon, or the Ziknei Yisrael.

The results could not have been more different. After consulting with Moshe (and with his assistance), Aharon successfully brought Hashem’s fire to consume the korbanot. Nadav and Avihu, who acted without first seeking guidance or assistance, were consumed by the same fire.

Parshat Shemini teaches us that we fulfill Hashem’s will by following His commands and then filling in the missing details by consulting with Ziknei Yisrael. Commenting on Moshe’s summons of the Ziknei Yisrael, the Medrash compares the reliance of the Jewish people on their zekeinim to a bird’s dependency on its wings. “Just as a bird cannot fly without its wings, so the Jewish people cannot accomplish anything without their elders.” Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook explains that people naturally aim to fly, to transcend mundane life — but this is hard to accomplish. We look to our elders to provide inspiration and direction so that we can successfully take flight.

Our Generation
The need to seek direction from Ziknei Yisrael has always been important; it is even more important in our generation. First, the quickly-developing modern world raises many questions about what we should accept and integrate within Judaism and what we ought to avoid. Secondly, we live in a generation which has a natural aversion to authority figures. People have the mistaken impression that we should use our own sentiments about right or wrong to make decisions about Torah and halacha.

It is critical that we internalize Parshat Shemini’s message of the importance of turning to Ziknei Yisrael for direction on how to serve Hashem.

Rav Chaim Kanievsky Ztvk”l
Rav Chaim Kanievsky ztvk”l was just such a zakein. Hundreds of thousands of people attended his levaya partly because of the Torah, berachos, direction and advice he offered to individuals and organizations from all corners of Jewish society and from around the world over the past decades. His knowledge of kol haTorah kulah gave him unique insight as one of the ziknei ha’dor.

Our loss of such a zakein should motivate each one of us to reflect on the importance of strengthening our relationships with Torah personalities who can provide us with the Torah guidance we need to reach the heights to which we have the potential to fly.

About the Author
Rav Reuven Taragin is the Dean of Overseas Students at Yeshivat Hakotel where he is responsible for the program’s quality and message and the welfare of each of its talmidim. Rav Taragin is also the Educational Director of World Mizrachi and the RZA (Religious Zionists of America). He drives educational initiatives that strengthen the relationship of communities and individuals in the USA and around the world with Eretz Yisrael. Rav Taragin is also the Rosh Beit Midrash at Camp Moshava (I.O.) and the founder and director of the Vayichan Program which brings together the world's leading Torah teachers of different hashkafot to teach Torah together. Rav Taragin lives with his wife Shani and their six children in Alon Shvut, Israel.
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