May 30, 2002
Earth to Heaven
Parshat Behaalotcha (Numbers 8:1-12:16)
A woman in Alcoholics Anonymous once told Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twersky, a leading psychologist, the following story: An old friend of hers, who was still an alcoholic, asked her how long she had been sober. She responded that it was already two years. The friend couldn't believe it and asked, "How did you do it? In less than a week I would be back to drinking." She answered, "Every day when I awake, I start my day by asking God, 'God please help me and keep me sober.' At the end of the day before going to sleep I say, 'Thank you God for helping me.'" The friend was dumbfounded by this explanation and asked the woman, "How do you know it is God who helped you?" She responded, "I didn't ask anyone else, did I?"
In her simplicity, this lady taught us a profound lesson about faith in God, a theme that is central to the Torah portion of this week. Our Torah portion begins with the command to Aaron and his descendants to light the menorah in the Tabernacle. The Midrash wonders why this command, which technically should have been placed in the book of Leviticus, is taught in Numbers as the opening command of this portion.
The Midrash answers that it was placed here because in the previous Torah portion, Aaron was noticeably absent when the princes of the tribes offered their dedication gifts. When Aaron became despondent because he was excluded, God placated him by providing him with the everlasting act of lighting the menorah.
The renowned 13th century Spanish commentator, Nachmanides, wonders how we could claim that the act of lighting the menorah placated Aaron. If he just needed to be a participant in the service of the Tabernacle, he already was. Wasn't it Aaron who brought the twice daily incense and daily offerings, and on Yom Kippur wasn't he the one and only who could enter the Holy of Holies?
An important 19th century Chasidic master, the Shem MiShmuel, suggests that it is true that Aaron had a role in the Tabernacle. Lighting the menorah, however, wasn't about Aaron's role in the Tabernacle. Instead, it was about a need that Aaron had. All of the other rituals in the Tabernacle brought God closer to man. They all served in bringing heaven down to earth. They drew the presence of God into the Holy Temple. Aaron, however, knew that the Temple service wasn't only meant to bring heaven down to earth; it is also meant to bring earth to heaven. It is meant to inspire man to turn heavenward, to lift mankind from the mundane to the spiritual.
The menorah, unlike all other services in the Tabernacle, lifts man toward heaven. Symbolically, the flames must be arranged to rise heavenward in order for the service to be complete. We now appreciate why the lighting of the menorah satisfied Aaron's request, whereas any other of the privileges he enjoyed in the Tabernacle did not.
Like the cured alcoholic anonymous patient whose faith in God lifted her heavenward, Aaron understood thousands of years ago that man must be inspired to rise heavenward, in order to attain true spirituality.