Parsha Potpourri: Parshas Shemini


Vateitzei aish milifnei Hashem vatochal osam vayamusu lifnei Hashem (10:2)

The Gemora in Sanhedrin (52a) teaches that while Moshe and Aharon were leading the way at Mount Sinai, Nadav and Avihu followed behind them and wondered aloud to one another when Moshe and Aharon might die so that they could assume the mantle of leadership. Hashem replied, “We’ll see who will bury who.” Rashi explains that the Gemora is coming to teach that it was for this act of seeking power that they died prematurely. This is difficult to understand for two reasons. First, the Torah gives an alternative reason for their death (10:1-2): they brought an offering which they weren’t commanded to bring. Second, nowhere do we find that the pursuit of power is a capital crime.

The Steipler beautifully resolves these questions based on a Gemora in Rosh Hashana (17a-b). The Gemora teaches that if a person acts humble and unassuming, Hashem overlooks his sins and gives him time to repent. In light of this, the Steipler explains that the Gemora in Sanhedrin doesn’t mean to say that Nadav and Avihu were put to death for seeking honor. Rather, it is bothered that Hashem normally gives a person an opportunity to repent and doesn’t punish him on the spot. Why were Nadav and Avihu immediately killed for their erroneous actions?

The Gemora answers that almost one year previously they expressed their jealous desire for power. As a result, they didn’t receive Divine mercy to give them time to repent. The actual cause of their deaths was the foreign sacrifice, as the Torah explicitly says. The reason that Hashem judged them so strictly was because they invited it upon themselves by coveting the leadership.

Based on the Steipler’s explanation, we may now resolve an apparent difficulty in  “Elokai Netzor,” the prayer added at the end of Shemoneh Esrei. Seemingly, the most important requests contained therein are “P’sach libi b’Torasecha uv’mitzvosecha tirdof nafshi” Hashem should open our hearts to His Torah and help us pursue the performance of mitzvos. If so, why don’t we begin the paragraph with these petitions?

The aforementioned Gemora in Rosh Hashana mentions that there is one other way to merit Divine leniency: to overlook wrongs done to us and not respond to insults. If Hashem grants our request to help us excel in our Torah study and mitzvos but judges them strictly, we don’t stand much of a chance. Many times they are performed without full concentration or for ulterior motives. We first ask for help in obtaining the two keys to eliciting Hashem’s mercy:  “V’lim’kal’lai nafshi sidom v’nafshi ke’afar lakol tih’yeh” – To those who curse me, let my soul be silent, and let my soul be like dust to everyone. Only after we have the tools to merit Hashem’s compassionate judgment are we able to continue with our primary request.

Es zeh tochlu mikol asher bamayim kol asher lo snapir v’kaskeses (11:9)

For a fish to be kosher, the Torah requires that it have fins and scales. The Mishnah (Niddah 6:9) teaches that every fish with scales has fins, but some possess fins without scales. In light of this, the Gemora (Chullin 66b) questions why the Torah gives two requirements to determine a fish’s kashrus. Wouldn’t it have sufficed to make it solely dependent on scales, which are always accompanied by fins? The Gemora cryptically answers that the Torah did so “l’hagdil Torah ul’ha’adira” – to make the Torah great and mighty. How is this perplexing statement to be understood?

The Zayis Re’anan (the commentary of the Magen Avrohom on the Yalkut Shimoni) brilliantly elucidates the Gemora’s answer. In his notes on the Rosh’s commentary in Chullin, the Ma’adanei Yom Tov (3:67 s.k. 5) relates a fascinating episode. Rav Aharon HaRofeh brought before him a poisonous marine animal, known in Latin as stinkus marinus, which clearly possessed scales. In contradiction to the Mishnah’s claim, it had four small legs in lieu of fins.

The Zayis Re’anan suggests that Chazal were aware of this creature’s existence. They also recognized that independent of the laws of kashrus, people would instinctively avoid eating this poisonous animal. They therefore weren’t concerned that their categorical statement, which seems to permit its consumption, would lead to any practical problems.

The Gemora in Makkos (23b) teaches that because Hashem wanted to give us merits, He increased the number of mitzvos, as the verse says, “Hashem chafeitz l’ma’an tzidko yagdil Torah v’ya’adir,” the same expression used by the Gemora with which we began. Rashi explains that there are many mitzvos, such as the prohibition against eating bugs, which a person would observe independent of the commandment involved. Because Hashem wanted us to accrue additional merits, He forbade them so that we would receive reward for actions which we would perform regardless, but which now have the status of mitzvos.

With this introduction, we can understand the Gemora with which we began. The Gemora questioned why the Torah mentions fins as a requirement for kosher fish when it would have sufficed to mention only scales. However, had the Torah done so, the stinkus marinus would technically be kosher, as it possesses scales. The additional requirement of fins comes to render this animal forbidden.

This is difficult to understand, as this creature is poisonous and people would anyway avoid it. Why was it necessary to add the requirement of fins to exclude it? Based on Rashi’s explanation that Hashem made the Torah great with extra mitzvos to give us reward for what we would have done regardless, we may suggest that this is the intention of the Gemora in Chullin in quoting the same verse. Hashem made the Torah great by adding the requirement of fins to render the stinkus marinus non-kosher and give us reward for following our natural instincts to avoid it.

Zos chukas HaTorah (Bamidbar 19:2 – Parshas Parah)

The Gemora in Sanhedrin (99a) teaches that a person who studies Torah but neglects to teach it to others has disgraced Hashem’s words and rejected His commandments. He will be harshly punished by being completely cut off from the Jewish nation. Although there is a positive mitzvah to teach Torah to others, why is the failure to do so judged so strictly?

Rav Pam explains that the very fact that a person is able to keep his learning to himself reveals that he doesn’t grasp the sweetness of the Torah that he studies. If he appreciated and personally experienced its beauty and depth, he would literally be unable to contain it within himself.

As proof for his claim, Rav Pam quotes the Chasam Sofer, who writes that Moshe Rabbeinu was the only human who understood the mysteries of the purification of the red heifer. Nevertheless, the fact that he wasn’t permitted to share it with a single person caused him so much agony that he would have actually preferred not be privy to the secret. Similarly, Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz was wont to quote what the Kuntres HaSfeikos writes that if angels appeared to a person to reveal to him Divine secrets, he would have no pleasure from the intrinsic knowledge until he was able to share it with others.

In light of the above, we now understand that if a person studies Torah and feels no burning need to teach it to others, he obviously doesn’t appreciate the value of the Torah that he studied. This is the ultimate fulfillment of “scorning the word of Hashem” and is deserving of the harshest of punishments.

Answers to the weekly Points to Ponder are now available!
To receive the full version with answers email the author at [email protected].

Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):

1)     Rashi writes (Devorim 9:20) that Nadav and Avihu died as a punishment to Aharon for his role in the sin of the golden calf. How can this be reconciled with the verse which says (10:1) that they died as a punishment for their own sin in offering a foreign fire on the Altar? (Taam V’Daas 16:1)

2)     Rashi writes (10:3) that Moshe told Aharon after the death of his two sons, Nadav and Avihu, that he had known that the Mishkan would be sanctified through the death of somebody close to Hashem, but he had assumed that it would be either himself or Aharon, yet he now recognized that Nadav and Avihu were even greater than them. How is it possible that Nadav and Avihu were greater than Moshe, who was the greatest prophet ever to live, and Aharon, who was equal in greatness to Moshe (Rashi Shemos 6:26)? (Even Yisroel Parshas Acharei Mos)

3)     The Gemora in Berachos (53b) derives from 11:44 the requirement to wash one’s hands at the end of a meal (mayim acharonim). Is there a minimum amount of water which a person is required to use to perform this mitzvah? (Beis Yosef Orach Chaim 181, Eliyah Rabbah 181:3, Maaseh Rav 84, Aruch HaShulchan 181:8, Mishnah Berurah 181:10 and 181:19, Kaf HaChaim 181:17, Orchos Rabbeinu Vol. 1 pg. 83, Piskei Teshuvos 181:9, Bishvilei HaParsha)

4)     According to the opinion that the reading of Parshas Parah is a Torah obligation (Orach Chaim 685:7), is a woman required to come to the synagogue to hear it as she does for the reading of Parshas Zachor, and if not, what is the difference? (Moadim U’Zmanim 2:168)

© 2011 by Oizer Alport.