Shemini: For this, you were Chosen

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Below is based on the idea I shared in synagogue this past week– enjoy!

In this week’s Torah reading, Parshas Shemini, we see, after much preparation, the inauguration of the Mishkan, or the Tabernacle. Aaron was gearing up for his role as the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, and when it finally came time for his moment of glory, the Torah implies something that is quite surprising:

“Then Moses said to Aaron: “Come forward to the altar and sacrifice your sin offering and your burnt offering, making atonement for yourself and for the people…” The commentator Rashi notes that it seems from the wording of the verse that Aaron was hesitant to approach the alter– there was something holding him back. Rashi says that Moshe was asking him, ” why are you embarrassed and scared” when in reality, it was, “for this” that he was chosen.

What exactly was holding him back? What was he scared of? Wasn’t this what he was preparing for? Shouldn’t he have been excited to begin this next chapter? And, what exactly did Moses mean when he said, “for this, you were chosen?” What is the “this” that he refers to?

The Ramban comments that Moses was telling him, “‘My brother, Aaron, do not be afraid of that which you fear. Embolden yourself and come near it.’ …Having no sin on his soul except for the incident of the golden calf, therefore that sin was firmly fixed in his mind, something like that which is said, and my sin is ever before me. It thus appeared to him as if the form of the calf was there [in the altar] preventing his [attaining] atonement [through the offerings he was to bring]. That is why Moses said to him, “Embolden yourself so that you should not be of such humble spirit,” for G-d has already accepted his works.”

The Ramban indicates that there was a lot going on in Aaron’s mind– he was haunted by his involvement in the sin of the golden calf, so much so, that the image was “fixed in his mind” and he saw an image of the calf before the alter. Moses tells him that when he was stricken with this paralyzing fear he should specifically approach the alter with “zerizus,” or, alacrity and zeal. When a person is stricken with anxiety and feelings of uneasiness he can either run away from the things that cause him fear, or run towards them, encounter them, and deal with them. According to the Ramban, Moses advises Aaron to try to latter approach– to approach his fear with zerizus. What a powerful lesson for us all as well.

But what did Moses mean when he told his brother, “for this, you were chosen?” For what, exactly? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, answers as follows:

(Aaron was) uncomfortable with his role in one of the most disastrous episodes in the Torah, and now he was being called to atone not only for himself but for the entire people. Was this not hypocrisy? Was he not himself a sinner? How could he stand before God and the people and assume the role of the holiest of men? No wonder he felt like an imposter and was ashamed and fearful of approaching the altar. Moses, however, did not simply say something that would boost his self-confidence. He said something much more radical and life-changing: “It was for this that you were chosen.” The task of a High Priest is to atone for people’s sins. … It was his responsibility to plead for forgiveness. “That,” implied Moses, “is why you were chosen. You know what sin is like. You know what it is to feel guilt. You more than anyone else understand the need for repentance and atonement. You have felt the cry of your soul to be cleansed, purified and wiped free of the stain of transgression. What you think of as your greatest weakness will become, in this role you are about to assume, your greatest strength.”…Aaron had to understand that his own experience of sin and failure made him the ideal representative of a people conscious of their own sin and failure. Feelings of inadequacy – the imposter syndrome – can be bad news or good news depending on what you do with them. Do they lead you to depression and despair? Or do they lead you to work at your weaknesses and turn them into strengths? The key, according to Rashi in this week’s parsha, is the role Moses played at this critical juncture in Aaron’s life. He had faith in Aaron even when Aaron lacked faith in himself. That is the role God Himself played, more than once, in Moses’ life. And that is the role God plays in all our lives if we are truly open to Him. I have often said that the mystery at the heart of Judaism is not our faith in God. It is God’s faith in us.This then is the life-changing idea: what we think of as our greatest weakness can become, if we wrestle with it, our greatest strength. Think of those who have suffered tragedy and then devote their lives to alleviating the suffering of others. Think of those who, conscious of their failings, use that consciousness to help others overcome their own sense of failure…. God loves us and believes in us despite, and sometimes because of, our imperfections. Our weaknesses make us human; wrestling with them makes us strong.

What emerges from these majestic words of Rabbi Sacks, are two profound ideas:

  1. Sometimes, it is the things that we specifically perceive as our greatest weaknesses, or our greatest challenges, that can be turned into our greatest strengths. It was only because Aaron had been through the process of committing a sin, and ultimately, intensely repenting for the sin, that he was the most worthy person to bring the sin offering, and achieve atonement for the Jewish people. When we, too, inevitably go through things in our lives, how empowering it can be, even in the moment, when we channel what we are going through as an opportunity for personal growth, and to one day help someone else going through the same thing.

2. Moshe’s encouragement changed Aharon’s life– we can do the same for the our friends and family as well: As Rabbi Sacks said, “The key is the role Moses played at this critical juncture in Aaron’s life. He had faith in Aaron even when Aaron lacked faith in himself.” Many of us know people who are plagued with self doubt. But we can see the greatness that lies in each of them. Let us emulate Moshe, and G-d Himself, and encourage them. This may well change their lives. 

L’Kach Nivcharta— then, means that it was specifically because of the challenges Aharon experienced that he was able to best serve his people as Kohen Gadol. Hopefully each and everyone one of us can look in the mirror and analyze: L’kach Nivcharti— for what reason was I chosen to have the life circumstances I have?

And, what can I do with the cards I have been dealt to help others? 

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