5767 - #25


Rashi, Vayikra 9:7 writes that Aharon was embarrassed to approach the mizbe’ach, the altar, and so Moshe Rabbeinu told him to approach. These words of Rashi are actually based upon Sifra, Shemini 7, on this verse, which also adds the additional reason that Aharon was afraid.1 The question emerges, though: why the need to explain why Moshe said these words to Aharon? Could they have not simply been Moshe’s statement of command to Aharon? Siftei Chachamim explains that all Moshe really had to say was for Aharon to prepare his sacrifice; this would have included the necessity for Aharon to draw close to the altar. Furthermore, this statement of command was already made. Why, then, did Moshe tell Aharon to draw close? There must have been an additional concern. The answer is that Moshe was not actually commanding Aharon but actually comforting him. Aharon was hesitant to perform this mitzvah; Moshe was giving Aharon the strength to overcome this hesitation. There was a situation; Moshe’s words were directed so as to deal with this situation.

             Whenever we confront a statement, our goal is to understand the exact nature of the statement. In our quest, we undertake to analyze the statement, at times recognizing that this undertaking will demand of us to investigate the state of the one making the statement. What is often overlooked, though, is the nature and state of the one to whom the statement is directed. This is especially true in the study of Torah. We will attempt to understand a verse, a statement, even the text of a mitzvah. We will also attempt to understand the goal of the speaker, attempt even to present a human understanding of God’s intent in speaking. The state of the one listening – the one to whom the statement is directed – is often overlooked, especially in a personal manner. The result may be that the statement itself is not understood. This is such an instance. It is only after we understand Aharon’s perspective at this pivotal moment that we are able to understand the true nature of Moshe’s statement and Moshe’s objective in making this statement. Statements, even mitzvot, are not presented in a vacuum. Sometimes, they are directed to respond to the situation at hand and thus demand of us to fully describe that situation. To fully understand a mitzvah, it is often necessary for us to describe the entire circumstances in which the statement is made.2

             T.B. Ketubot 16b asks: how does one dance before the bride? Essentially, the gemora is asking how one fulfills the mitzvah of mesame’ach chatan v’kallah, of trying to make the bride and groom happy. I once heard someone raise the question of why it would be necessary to attempt to bring joy to the bride and groom; aren’t they already happy?3 In raising the question of the state of bride and groom, this individual gave further insight into the nature of this mitzvah. The command to bring joy to the bride and groom does not exist in a vacuum but its fulfillment demands of us to truly find the need to undertake this goal. This, in turn, demands of us to understand the full picture including the nature of the recipient. The same was true with Moshe and Aharon; one cannot understand Moshe’s words unless one understands Aharon’s condition and thus the purpose of these words within the context of the listener. The same is true with many statements and many mitzvot. One must understand the context to fully understand the statement or mitzvah.

             The attempt to understand the nature of the listener actually has many dimensions. One is the possibility that the result many not be monolithic, thus initiating a spectrum of understandings to a statement or mitzvah. Different individuals may have different states and thus a mitzvah may have different effects. Even if the actual demanded action is the same, the effect of the action may not be. The more significant effect, though, may be in how we approach a mitzvah. If we ask what a mitzvah is specifically saying to me, we initiate a challenge that can be most powerful, especially if the directed action is one to which we actually feel close. For example, there is a command to pray.4 One who already has a desire to pray will find this command to reflect his/her own desires and simply see the command in terms that are an extension of the personal desire. The one who does not have a desire to pray is challenged to attempt to understand this command and find its meaning. The challenge of the mitzvah would seem to fall on the one who does not have this desire. In fact, though, it may be the one who has the desire to pray that has the greater challenge. Why would God declare this command if the individual already has the desire to pray? By looking at the listener, we can ask about the need for the statement if the listener already knows the message. The greater challenge may be on the one who believes he/she already knows the message, to find the real, new message – that may not only reveal a new idea but actually create a conflict with the internal desire. It may be that, in the case of prayer, the need for the command is to inform us that we should not be so desirous to pray. Prayer actually demands the command; otherwise there should be trepidation.

             Ramban, Notes to Rambam’s Sefer Hamitzvot, Aseh 5 challenges Rambam’s assertion that there is a Biblical command to pray. He contends that the various statements about prayer in the Torah do not command but rather give a permission to pray. By what right can a human being approach God with a petition? This is the permission that the Torah grants. In asking about the nature of the listener, we may not only determine the actual state but also learn a lesson about the aspired state. In rejecting the idea that these Torah statements were intended to command, Ramban is informing us that they are telling us something about the listener – in this case not the state of the listener but, rather, what the state should be.

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Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1 In regard to these two reasons, see further, Malbim which explains the basis for these two emotions and why they may have possibly co-existed.

2 The simplest way of understanding the context of a mitzvah is by describing a situation where God demands a specific action that will otherwise not be undertaken. The focus can be solely on the action and not the one commanded, except for the fact that he/she would otherwise not undertake this action. As we move from this description of the facts, though, the nature of a mitzvah becomes more complicated.

3 The answer that this individual further presented was that perhaps the bride and groom were, in fact, not as happy as we may think. There is trepidation in agreeing to marry. While there is great joy, there is also fear and concern whether the decision is a correct one. The command of mesame’ach chatan v’kallah is thus not simply a command to do things that bring joy but, rather, more specifically a command to deal with this concern. This actually gives greater meaning to the words of both Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. Their disagreement concerns how to correctly declare that the decision is a correct one.

4 Be it that this command is Biblical or Rabbinic in nature.


Nishma, 2007


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