Parashat Shemini- Sacrificing for Misvot
Parashat Shemini tells of the events that took place “on the eighth day” – meaning, the day after the seven-day Miluim process during which Aharon and his sons were prepared to serve as Kohanim. On this eighth day, Aharon and his sons served as Kohanim in the Mishkan for the first time.
The Torah introduces this section with the words “Va’yehi Ba’yom Ha’shemini” (“It was on the eighth day”). The Gemara in Masechet Megilla comments that the word “Va’yehi” is an expression of “Sa’ar” (“anguish”), and is used as an indication of tragedy or distress. In this context, the Gemara comments, the word “Va’yehi” foreshadows the great tragedy that befell Beneh Yisrael on this day, as Nadab and Abihu – Aharon’s two older sons – were killed by a heavenly fire after they brought an unwarranted offering. Although this day began as a very joyous and festive occasion, the Torah uses the word “Va’yehi” in reference to this day because of the tragedy that struck the nation.
The Or Ha’hayim (Rav Haim Ben-Attar, 1696-1743) offers another reason why the word “Va’yehi” – an expression of anguish – is used in this context. The Midrash teaches that Moshe Rabbenu was to have served as the Kohen Gadol. As the greatest human being who ever lived, Moshe was certainly capable of serving all the different roles – prophet, teacher, leader, guide and Kohen Gadol. However, this privilege was taken away from him as a punishment for his initial refusal to approach Pharaoh and demand that he free Beneh Yisrael. When G-d first appeared to Moshe at the burning bush and instructed him to lead Beneh Yisrael to freedom, Moshe initially refused, and so he was punished by being denied the privilege of serving as Kohen Gadol. Thus, Or Ha’hayim writes, the Torah uses the word “Va’yehi” in reference to the day when Aharon began serving as Kohen Gadol. This was a day of great pain and anguish for Moshe Rabbenu, who understood the great importance and precious value of the service in the Mishkan and desperately wanted to serve as the nation’s Kohen Gadol, but needed to instead send his brother to assume this lofty position. And thus the word “Va’yehi” expresses Moshe’s distress as he relinquished the exalted position of Kohen Gadol to his brother.
We can gain further insight into the significance of this verse – and the greatness of Moshe Rabbenu – by noting the other time in the Humash when we find the phrase “Ba’yom Ha’shemini” – “on the eighth day.”
In next week’s Parasha, Parashat Tazria, the Torah mentions the obligation to circumcise one’s son on the boy’s eighth day of life: “U’ba’yom Ha’shemini Yimol Besar Orlato” – “and on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be removed” (12:3). The commentators interpret the phrase “Ba’yom Ha’shemini” to mean that a Berit Mila should ideally be performed early in the morning on the eighth day, and not delayed until later in the day. If so, then the term “Ba’yom Ha’shemini” here in the beginning of Parashat Shemini should be understood the same way – as indicating that it was early in the morning on this day that Moshe summoned Aharon and his sons and had them offer sacrifices for the first time. As difficult as this process was for Moshe Rabbenu, he did not delay it one moment longer than necessary. At the crack of dawn on the eighth day, Moshe assembled the people and had the newly-appointed Kohanim begin to serve. Moshe was so selflessly committed to serving Hashem, to fulfilling his role without concern for his own feelings and interests, that he rushed to have Aharon serve in his place.
When it comes to performing Misvot, we must put our own interests and wishes to the side, and do what we are required to do. Moshe’s inspiring example teaches us that sometimes we need to make difficult sacrifices for the sake of fulfilling Hashem’s will, and we must be prepared to make these sacrifices. Even when fulfilling a Misva is challenging, we must embrace the challenge, as Moshe did, and devote ourselves selflessly to the faithful service of Hashem.