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Beating Around the Bush (Beha’alotcha)

Is there any connection between the lighting of the menorah and the fires of Nadav and Avihu? What about the branch of almonds that sprouted following Korach’s rebellion? What about the burning bush? Read more in this very quick thought on last week’s Parshah, Beha’alotcha:  

Last week’s parshah, Beha’alotcha, opened with Hashem’s command for Aharon to light the menorah in the mishkan: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him: When you set up the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light in front of the lampstand. Aaron did so; he set up its lamps to give light in front of the lampstand, as the Lord had commanded Moses” (Num. 8:3).

A diagram of the menorah, as drawn by the Rambam

Notice the the Torah’s emphasis–twice–on Aharon’s compliance with this command. It seems redundant; and, indeed, it prompts remark from Rashi. Citing the medrash Sifrei, Rashi explains: “’Aaron did so:’ This shows Aaron’s virtue, in that he did not deviate [from God’s command]” (Rashi, Num. 8:3, s.v. ויעש כן אהרן). Implicit in Rashi’s gloss is the assumption that Aharon may have found himself tempted to veer from, or somehow modify, Hashem’s orders. But why?

The answer, it seems, lies not in our text, but in its “intertext.” For, though we do not naturally think of it in these terms, the mitzvah of the menorah, in one sense, hearkens us back to a much darker episode in Biblical history. It is a story about the first time somebody tried to kindle a fire in the mishkan. And its protagonists were also priests. Indeed, they were Aharon’s oldest sons: Nadav and Avihu (see Lev. 10).

In fact, the story took place right around the same time as the command concerning the menorah. We know this because the Torah tells us that Nadav and Avihu brought their fires into the mishkan on the day of its inauguration. Meanwhile, the command concerning the menorah is immediately preceded by the list of sacrifices volunteered by the nesi’im in preparation for the mishkan’s inauguration (Num. 7:1-89), and it is immediately succeeded by the inauguration ceremony of the Levites, which took place in conjunction with that of the mishkan (Num. 8:5-23).

But the most compelling connection of all, perhaps, is the one supplied by the medrash Tanchuma. Cited, once again, by Rashi on our parshah, the medrash actually argues that it was the pomp and circumstance surrounding the inauguration of the mishkan which left Aharon pining to bring an offering of his own: “Why is the portion dealing with the menorah juxtaposed to the portion dealing with the chieftains’ [offerings]? For when Aaron saw the dedication [offerings] of the chieftains, he felt distressed over not joining them in this dedication – neither he nor his tribe. So God said to him, “’By your life, yours is greater than theirs, for you will light and prepare the lamps’” (Rashi, Num. 8:2, s.v. “בעהלותך”).

Even lacking the other similarities noted above, we should find it impossible to read this comment of Rashi’s without thinking immediately of Nadav and Avihu. After all, when one studies the incident of Nadav and Avihu, it certainly seems that they, too, were swept up in the grandeur of the inauguration festivities; that they, too, found themselves longing to play a more central role; and that it was this which triggered them to enter into the mishkan with their fire offerings. And indeed, many commentators adopt approaches along these lines (see, among others, Or Hachaim, Shadal, Netziv, and R. Samson Raphael Hirsch).

What emerges, then, is that the fire of Aharon is not all that different from the fires of his sons. Both are offered in the mishkan. Both are introduced on or around the date of that mishkan’s inauguration. And both are spurred by a similar psycho-religious drive: namely, the drive to go “above and beyond” in one’s service of Hashem–above and beyond what has been asked, and above and beyond what others are doing–just as the nesi’im had done. The major difference? Aharon’s fire was offered “כאשר צוה ה” — “as Hashem had commanded” (Num. 8:3); Nadav and Avihu’s was offered “אשר לא צוה אתם” — “such that [Hashem] had not commanded” (Lev. 8:1).

Which came first–Nadav and Aivhu’s fire-offering, or the command to Aharon concerning the menorah–is less clear. This makes it challenging to determine whether it was the command concerning the menorah that inspired the enterprise of Nadav and Avihu, or, possibly, vice versa. Either way, however, the relationship between the two, once proposed, would appear incontestable. And that, in turn, sheds new light on the institution of the menorah. For the flame is the product of human creativity; it is always reaching higher; it outshines all that is around it. In this way, it represents everything that might propel a Nadav or Avihu in their personal religious quest. But raw spiritual ambition can quickly grow dangerous, if it is not carefully contained and structured. Hence the elaborately arranged candelabra. Through it, the zeal and enthusiasm and personal initiative exemplified by Nadav and Avihu become tempered by the ethos of patience, order, obedience, and collective responsibility, as exemplified by their father.

Also important, in this regard, is the symbol of the “almond buds” which adorned the menorah (e.g. Exod. 25:33). As one of the first fruits to ripen each spring, the almond is Tanach’s symbol of speed and urgency; indeed, the noun ש.ק.ד, meaning “almond,” spawned a verb of the same root, ש.ק.ד, which means “to act rapidly” or “hastily” (see esp. Jer. 1:11-12). This term aptly encompasses the ways in which the energy and aspiration surrounding the divine service might quickly lead (and, in fact, did lead) to rash behavior, if not  thoughtfully directed, as are the almonds in the context of the menorah.

And, actually, this perspective offers us insight into yet a third Biblical passage: that of Korach’s rebellion (see Num. 16-17). After Korach and his faction challenge Aharon’s authority, the twelve tribal chieftains are instructed to bring their staffs to the mishkan, along with Aharon’s, and leave them overnight; the next morning they discover that Aharon’s staff has sprouted buds, whereas the chieftains’ staffs remain unchanged (Num. 17:23). Careful analysis of this enigmatic ritual leaves us with the impression that it is intended to mimic, in some sense, that of the menorah: hence, the branches; the “buds;” the “almonds,” of course; the setting, at the entrance of the mishkan; and the twelve nesi’im.

And this makes sense, given Rashi’s comment from earlier: if the menorah was the ritual which Hashem reserved for Aharon as a way to represent his eminence via-a-vis the nesi’im–and, by extension, the axiological primacy of consistency and self-regulation over undisciplined personal innovation–then what better symbol to have the nesi’im recreate, at precisely the point when nation seems to have forgotten the message?[1] In fact, this parallel is doubly poignant given the connections we previously observed between Korach’s rebellion and the sins of Nadav and Avihu.[2]

Finally, for now, one wonders whether “bush” imagery ought to factor anywhere into our analysis. Certainly the menorah, with its multiple branches, reminds us of the bush from which originate the almonds that embellish it. In this context, its message may be—to reformulate it a little more specifically—that the “fruit” cannot survive without its “roots,” any more so than our own personal creativity or desire for independent growth will prove sustainable if not grounded in the traditions of the Tree of Life (=the Torah), and the customs represented by our personal family treImage result for burning bushes.

Of course, once we are here, we cannot help but return to the Torah’s other “fire bush:” the burning bush, from which Hashem appears to Moshe at the dawn of the exodus (see Exod. 3-4).[3]  Is the menorah patterned upon this bush? That, too, could make sense thematically: Moshe, the greatest of all leaders, showed himself extremely reluctant to assume personal prominence or initiative when called upon to do so by Hashem at the burning bush; in this way, he served as a beacon of prudence and self-restraint for any other aspiring leaders and innovators, long before the menorah ever would…

Note: This piece is part of a larger series tracing the influence of Nadav and Avihu’s actions upon later events in the Torah. If you would like to read more, please see “Out of This World” (Nadav, Avihu, and the Nazir); “The Hair Affair” (Nadav, Avihu, and Korach); and “The Second Death of the Firstborns” (Nadav, Avihu, and Pesach Sheni); see also “Loose Strands” (Korach, the “tzitzit,” and the “tzitz”).

[1] Notice also that Aharon, Nadav, and Korach are all firstborns — just as the almond is the first to ripen. There is often something very “alpha” about the desire for personal expression; in some ways, it is inextricably linked with the drive to achieve prominence.

[2] There are actually several ways in which the incident of Korach brings us back to parshat Beha’alotcha. Besides for the almond branches, and the overlap with Nadav and Avihu, the passage which immediately follows the law of the menorah—namely, the inauguration of the Levi’im—is also related to Korach’s rebellion: Korach participated in this ritual, and, per the Gemara, his rebellion was sparked in part by the humiliation of having been forced to shave during the ceremony (Sanhedrin 110a).

[3] Intriguingly, the medrash actually links this bush, indirectly, to Aharon’s almond-sprouting staff (mechilta d’Rashbi, 3).

1 Comment

  1. Simon Italiaander says:

    I just read. Such a creative connection between Aharon and his Sons.

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