BY WAY OF EXAMPLE
Strolling alongside busy Peachtree Road one beautiful evening with his family, six-year old Jason notices something sparkling out of the corner of his eye, lying unguarded on the other side of the street.
Strolling alongside busy Peachtree Road one beautiful evening with his family, six-year old Jason notices something sparkling out of the corner of his eye, lying unguarded on the other side of the street. Without a moment's hesitation, he suddenly jumps from between his parents and absent-mindedly sets his course directly across the street for the object of his desires, his mind wildly racing as he conjectures what the new-found treasure could possibly be. "Jason!!" shrieks his mother frantically as she grabs her precious son by the arm, a mere instant before he stepped in front of the oncoming bus. "Never cross the street without first looking both ways!" With Jason safely restored to the sidewalk, his loving parents precede to impress upon their young son the evils of trying to cross the street without first checking for traffic, instilling within him a lesson he will never forget.
This week's Torah portion opens with the command to Aaron that he may never enter the inner sanctum of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), except on Yom Kippur as a part of the special service of the day. Strangely, the Torah prefaces this command by making mention of the recent deaths of Aaron's two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, for performing an unauthorized service which was discussed in detail several portions ago. Why the repetition at the beginning of this week's portion? Rashi, the fundamental commentator on the Torah, explains this juxtaposition with a parable about a sick man who came before his physician for a checkup. After the examination, the doctor instructed his patient to refrain from consuming certain foods which would be detrimental to his health. A second physician then emerged and presented the same command as did the first, however adding an important warning: "If you don't follow my instructions, you will die just like Mr. Smith died." Without a doubt, the second doctor's warning which included the potentially catastrophic outcome, was stronger and more effective, motivating the patient to make the requisite changes in his lifestyle.
Similarly, Hashem instructed Moses to present the law to Aaron by making reference to the horrible tragedy of the death of Nadav and Avihu. Even though Moses told Aaron that entering the inner sanctum in an improper manner would be punishable by death, the warning would be even more effective if brought home by invoking the untimely deaths of two close relatives which were the consequence of the very same transgression, not showing proper respect for the sanctity of the Mishkan.
It is interesting to note, points out Rabbi Yaakov Naiman, a 20th century educator of Torah ethics in Israel, that this additional warning was necessary even for a person as distinguished as Aaron, the Kohen Gadol (high priest), the person selected by Hashem to serve in the most elevated fashion. Even for someone of the highest spiritual order, an additional vivid warning was beneficial, far surpassing the effects of a simple prohibition. How much more so, for those of us who have not yet reached the lofty plateau of Aaron's pristine character development, must it be necessary that we vividly imagine the repercussions of our actions as a tool to motivate us to progress on the proper path. Fear of Hashem is not acquired, and will not penetrate our hearts, through the mere knowledge that something is or is not correct; living an elevated life requires diligent work and our constantly repeating to ourselves its importance if we are to be inspired to serve Hashem faithfully.
Perhaps this is what the sages intended when they included at the beginning of the Haggadah the statement, "Even if we were all people of wisdom, understanding, experience, and knowledge of the Torah, it would still be an obligation upon us to tell about the exodus from Egypt." We seek to build within ourselves more than just an intellectual knowledge of Hashem and of our unique responsibilities in this world. Our goal is to vividly inscribe upon our hearts a picture of these concepts and to transform ourselves into people whose daily actions are inspired with that understanding. Repetition, imagination, and hard work are necessary to reach our goal. But just like Jason's parents will not rest until they are absolutely certain that their young son fully understands the gravity of crossing the street without looking both ways, we must not give up in our pursuit to purify and strengthen ourselves.
Michael Alterman, who hails from Atlanta, is enrolled in a joint program with Ner Israel Rabbinical College and Johns Hopkins University, both in Baltimore.
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