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Parashat Shemini in Year of Pandemic 5780|2020- Inaugurating the Heavenly Altar

Parashat Shemini describes the events that occurred on the day of the Mishkan’s inauguration, when Aharon and his sons served as Kohanim for the first time.

The Aruch Ha’shulhan (Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein of Nevarduk, 1829-1908), in discussing the text of the daily Amida prayer (Orah Haim 120:1), makes a fascinating comment, noting that on this day, when Aharon was appointed Kohen Gadol in the Mishkan, there was also another appointment made – in the heavens.

The context of the Aruch Ha’shulhan’s remark is the mysterious passage in the Beracha of "Reseh" in the Amida prayer, in which we ask Hashem to accept our prayers as well as "Isheh Yisrael" – "the fire-offerings of Israel." Even though we do not offer sacrifices nowadays, in the absence of the Bet Ha’mikdash, nevertheless, we pray that Hashem should accept our sacrifices. The Tur (Rabbenu Yaakob Ben Asher, 1269-1343) explains that this prayer refers not to the sacrifices offered in the Bet Ha’mikdash in Jerusalem, but rather to the sacrifices offered in the heavenly Bet Ha’mikdash. Citing the Midrash, the Tur writes that the angel Michael serves as the Kohen Gadol in the heavenly Temple, and he offers on the altar the souls of the Sadikim. When a righteous soul departs from our world, his soul is offered as a sacrifice on the heavenly altar, bringing atonement for the world. We thus ask Hashem to lovingly and compassionately accept the "Isheh Yisrael" – the souls of those righteous Jews who have departed our world, and are offered as sacrifices in the heavens.

The Aruch Ha’shulhan adds that on the day of the Mishkan’s inauguration, the heavenly altar was likewise inaugurated. And, on that day, when Aharon was formally appointed as Kohen Gadol here on earth, Michael was formally appointed Kohen Gadol in the heavens. The Aruch Ha’shulhan notes that when Moshe conveyed to the people G-d’s instructions regarding the special sacrifices required on that day, he said, "Ki Hayom Hashem Nir’a Alechem" ("…because today G-d appears to you" – 9:4). The letters of the word "Nir’a" also spell "Aharon," and the letters of the word "Alechem" also spell "Michael." Moshe was thus alluding to the fact that just as Aharon was being appointed Kohen Gadol here on earth, Michael was being appointed Kohen Gadol in the heavenly Mishkan.

This might explain the significance of the tragic story told later in the Parasha, of the death of Aharon’s two older sons, Nadab and Abihu. Overcome by emotion on this special day, Nadab and Abihu offered incense, which had not been authorized, and a fire consumed them. Nadab and Abihu were outstanding Sadikim, who were punished for a slight mistake that they made. On the day of the inauguration of the heavenly altar, two righteous souls were offered upon it. Just as Aharon offered sacrifices in the Mishkan on this day in honor of this special occasion, sacrifices were offered also on the heavenly altar – the precious, pure souls of Nadab and Abihu.

This might explain how Aharon was able to accept this tragedy with such equanimity. As the Torah (10:3) writes, "Va’yidom Aharon" – Aharon reacted with complete silence, fully maintaining his composure, without questioning G-d’s judgment, and without expressing or experiencing any grief or anguish. So much so, in fact, that several verses later (10:8), we read that G-d spoke to Aharon. One of the conditions that must be met for somebody to receive prophecy is that he must be in a state of genuine joy. And so if G-d spoke to Aharon that day, right after his sons were tragically killed, we must conclude that he was not affected by this tragedy. The explanation, perhaps, is that Aharon understood that Nadab and Abihu were chosen as the "sacrifices" with which to inaugurate the heavenly altar, and this realization overcame any personal grief he would have otherwise felt.

Over the last several weeks, many righteous souls have been taken from our community. We are not on the level of Aharon, and so we weep and mourn in grief and anguish over the unimaginable losses we have suffered. We cry with the families and we feel their pain. At the same time, we pray that Hashem will accept these "sacrifices," that these holy souls will bring atonement for the Jewish Nation, arousing Hashem’s mercy upon us and the entire world, bringing an end to our sorrow and our troubles, Amen.

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