Parashat Shmini: Praying?

Aaron did not approach the altar of his own accord but did so only after Moses instructed him to approach it. Why didn’t Aaron approach it on his own to begin the work?

 PRAYERS AT the Kotel.  (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
PRAYERS AT the Kotel.
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

Put your ego aside! 

Parashat Shmini opens with the description of the great day when the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was dedicated following the seven days of investiture during which Moses did the work in the Mishkan. On the eighth day, Moses passed the “baton” to Aaron and his sons:

And Moses said to Aaron, “Approach the altar and perform your sin offering and your burnt offering, atoning for yourself and for the people, and perform the people’s sacrifice, atoning for them, as the Lord has commanded.(Leviticus 9:7)

Aaron did not approach the altar of his own accord but did so only after Moses instructed him to approach it. Why didn’t Aaron approach it on his own to begin the work?

Rashi brings us the sages’ explanation:

 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90) SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

…because Aaron was bashful and afraid to approach. So, Moses said to him: “Why are you ashamed? For this, you have been chosen!”

The simple meaning is that Aaron was too bashful to approach and begin the sacred work, and Moses urged him on by saying – Don’t be bashful. The Creator of the Universe chose you! Gather up your courage and start the work. 

The Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, of greatest kabbalists of Safed, 1537–1572) reveals another layer of this issue and writes, “The meaning of this is that only you have this quality of humility and bashfulness, and therefore you were chosen from among the rest of your peers.”

When Moses saw that Aaron was ashamed to enter the holy place, he told him that humility of his is the reason he was chosen to serve in the House of God. Why? Because a person who would not be bashful is one who believes he is worthy and suitable for this role, and this itself would be a sign that he is not worthy to serve in this important job.

The Ba’al Shem Tov (Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, founder of the Hassidism movement) adds something to this explanation based on the verse in Psalms (51:19), “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit.”

The Talmud states the following:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says: Come and see how great the lowly in spirit are before the Holy One, Blessed be He. For when the Temple was standing, a person would sacrifice a burnt-offering and the merit of a burnt-offering would be his; he would sacrifice a meal-offering and the merit of a meal-offering would be his. 

But with regard to one whose spirit is lowly, the verse ascribes him credit as if he had sacrificed all the sacrificial offerings, as it is stated: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit” (Psalms 51:19). And not only that but his prayer is not despised, as it is stated: “A broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise”(Sota 5b).

What is the connection between humility, a broken spirit, and offering sacrifices?

The work of the sacrifices stood at the center of the holy work. As opposed to all the other jobs that symbolized the connection between life and holiness, the sacrifices symbolize the nullification of life in the face of holiness. A person with humility and bashfulness, who nullifies himself in the face of holiness, is like someone who sacrifices his spirit and soul before the sacred. Therefore, for Aaron the kohen (priest), whose job it was to offer the sacrifices in the Temple, the trait he needed more than any other was that of humility and bashfulness.

Today, because of our many sins, we no longer have kohanim doing their work, but each and every one of us is a sort of “kohen” when standing in prayer before the Creator of the Universe. Then, our prayer is like a sacrifice on the altar, as the prophet Hosea (14:3) said, “and let us render [for] bulls [the offering of] our lips.” 

If we want our prayers to be heard, we must approach prayer with humility and humbleness. Only when we understand how small and inconsequential we are in comparison with the greatness of God can we “approach the altar” and pray. ■

The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.