By: Rabbi Menashe Sasson
Reporting from Jerusalem, Israel
As we have previously learned, this world [עולם הזה], the physical world in which we live, is a world of duality. For example, there is hot and cold, up and down, on and off, and so on. We understand, of course, that there are many points between the two end-points which represent the duality of this world [עולם הזה]. That understanding illustrates and emphasizes that duality, but does not change it.
The Torah itself alludes to the duality of this world [עולם הזה]. As we know, the first word in the Torah is “Bereshit [בראשית],” which usually is translated as “In the beginning.” The Hebrew alphabet, the “Aleph-Bet,” begins with the letter “Aleph” [א]. The second letter of the Aleph-Bet, not surprisingly, is the letter “Bet” [ב].
Unlike other languages, each letter of the Hebrew alphabet has a corresponding numerical value. The first letter of the Aleph-Bet, the “Aleph” [א] has a numerical value of 1. The number “one” represents Hashem, who is One. The second letter of the Aleph-Bet, the “Bet” [ב] has a numerical value of 2. The first word of the Torah, “Bereshit [בראשית],” begins with the letter “Bet” [ב], which has the numerical value of 2 and which is an allusion to the fact that this world [עולם הזה] is a world of duality.
Another duality consists, on the one hand, of those who believe that this world [עולם הזה] was created by Hashem and, on the other hand, of those who believe this world exists due to “natural” or other causes that have nothing to do with a Hashem.
Those of us who believe – that is, those of us who “know” – that Hashem created this world [עולם הזה] constantly seek to “connect,” that is, to have a relationship, or to have a better, closer relationship, with Hashem.
Jews do not have a monopoly on wanting to “connect” with Hashem. Both Jews and Gentiles are driven to connect with their Creator. Recognizing this fact, the Sages told us that one who is obligated to perform a misva, and who does perform that misva, is greater than one who, although not obligated to perform the misva, does so voluntarily.
At first glance, the logic of this idea might seem counter-intuitive. After all, would it not be better to perform a misva voluntarily, as opposed to only performing the misva after one has been commanded to do so?
In other contexts, it is often true that performing an act voluntarily is greater than fulfilling an obligation. Compare, for example, a person who voluntarily gives charity (that he is not obligated to give) and a person who pays a debt that he owes. Most people would probably say that the act of giving charity is more meritorious than the act of paying one’s bills. This, of course, would be correct.
But when it comes to serving Hashem, things are different. The purpose of performing misvot is to accept upon oneself the Yoke of Heaven, to bend one’s will and humble oneself before his Creator. When one performs a misva that he is commanded to perform, he thereby accepts upon himself the Yoke of Heaven by bending his will to match that of his Creator and, thereby, humbling himself before his Creator.
However, the person who voluntarily performs a “misva” without having been commanded to do so has not accepted upon himself the Yoke of Heaven by bending his will to match that of his Creator. Rather, he has merely reaffirmed in his mind the correctness of his own decision that performing the misva is the proper thing to do. Thus, rather than accepting the Yoke of Heaven and humbling himself before his Creator, he has actually done exactly the opposite. He has aggrandized himself before his Creator.
With this background, we now turn to Parashat Shemini.
As we previously discussed in the context of the Aleph-Bet, numbers have intrinsic meaning which transcend their mere mathematical value. As we know from Parasha Bereshit, Hashem created the world in six days and rested on Shabbat, the seventh day. Thus, the number 7 represents this world [עולם הזה].
Given that Hashem created this world [עולם הזה] in six days and rested on Shabbat, the seventh day, and that He commanded the Jewish people to rest on every seventh day. It is interesting that the 7-day week has become almost universal worldwide, even though the number seven does not divide evenly into 365, the number of days in a year. Certain atheistic regimes, such as the former Soviet Union, attempted to implement a 5-day week; however, all such efforts have failed.
The number 8, on the other hand, represents the spiritual world. For example, we perform Brit Milah [ברית מילה] (circumcision) on the eighth day after a baby boy is born. One reason that has been given for performing Brit Milah [ברית מילה] on the eighth day is that because the number 7 represents the physical world and because the number 1 represents Hashem, who is One, the number 8, which is equal to 7 + 1, represents both the first level of the spiritual world, a level beyond physicality, and Hashem’s absolute sovereignty over this world [עולם הזה].
Other examples of the number 8 representing the spiritual is Hannukah, which celebrates for eight days the Jewish defeat of the Greeks, who sought to annihilate Jewish spirituality; the eight strands which are attached to each of the four corners of a Tallit; and the eight special garments that were worn by the Kohen Gadol while serving in the Beit Hamikdash.
In Parashat Shemini, we learn about the Priestly service in the Mishkan, which reached its pinnacle on the eighth day of the inauguration service, when Aharon and his sons Nadab and Abihu were consecrated as Kohanim.
Nadab and Abihu, in their zeal to serve Hashem, brought an offering that Hashem had not commanded them to bring. However, rather than being rewarded for voluntarily performing a “misva” that they had not been commanded to perform, Hashem summarily executed both Nadab and Abihu.
The lesson to be learned from Nadab and Avihu is that of the duality of serving Hashem. We must serve Hashem in a correct manner, on His terms, and not in an incorrect manner, on our terms. This applies to both Jew and Gentile alike.
For Jews, this means following the Halachic rulings of authoritative and respected rabbis. For rabbis, it means being careful when issuing Halachic rulings to ensure that such rulings, first and foremost, reflect, and do not abrogate, Biblical requirements and, secondly, that such rulings, while taking into account relevant Halachic precedent, also give appropriate consideration and weight to the specific facts and circumstances which exist at the time and place where the Halachic ruling is being given.
For Gentiles, this means learning and following the Seven Laws of Noah and not voluntarily performing “misvot” that one is not commanded to perform.
For both Jews and Gentiles alike, the lesson to be learned is that we must serve Hashem on His terms, and not, as did Nadab and Avihu, create a new religion, that is, we must not create a “strange fire before the Lord, which He commanded [us] not.”
With the help of Hashem, Nadab, and Avihu, we can now better understand what our Sages meant when they taught that “one who is obligated to perform a misva and who does perform that misva, is greater than one who, although not obligated to perform the misva, does so voluntarily.”
May we all be blessed to accept upon ourselves the Yoke of Heaven, and to bend our will and humble ourselves before our Creator.
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Menashe Sasson is a Sephardic rabbi and American lawyer who resides in Jerusalem, Israel. Rabbi Sasson received his rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Haim Ovadia, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Torah VeAhava. Rabbi Ovadia, who was born and raised in Jerusalem, was ordained by Hakham Mordechai Eliyahu, Chief Rabbi of Israel (1983 – 1993), and is a descendent of the renowned kabbalist Hakham Yehuda Fetaya Z”L.