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B'Midbar/Numbers 8:3 And Aharon did so: at the front of the face of the menorah, he brought up its lights.
Our text records Aharon, the first Cohen Gadol (High Priest) obeyingHaShem's instructions for lighting the lamps on the great Menorah standing in the Holy Place in the Tabernacle. According to the Talmud, the Menorah was 18 hand-breadths (that's about five foot four inches) high (b. Menachot 28b) and stood opposite the table on the south side of the Holy Place. Kindling its lamps, unless a stool was allowed to be taken into the Holy Place, would have been quite a physical challenge, working at around head height for some time to clean the bowls of soot, to trim the wicks, to refill with oil and then finally to ignite the wicks into flame and make sure that they are burning cleanly and brightly, without sputtering or smoking.
The first thing the commentators want to know is just exactly why the Torah found it necessary to tell us that Aharon carried out his instructions. Rashi comments (based on Sifrei 60) that it was "to tell the praise of Aharon, that he did not deviate." A typically terse Rashi comment! Avigdor Bonchek elaborates a little further:1 It is strange to say that Aharon should be praised for doing what he was told to do. What is so special and deserving of praise if Aharon did as he was told to do? The question is especially cogent when this is a command from G-d. Most of us would follow faithfully any mitzvah that G-d singled us out, personally, by name, to do. Why, then, is Aharon entitled to any 'special mention' for this?" Two Orthodox commentators offer suggestions: theMaharik explains that Aharon carried out the duty "personally, and did not assign the task to one of the other cohanim, even though it included the menial aspect of preparing the wicks"; the Sfat Emet offers the idea that "Aharon did not deviate from his initial fervour in carrying out the commandment; it never became a matter of routine with him." Jacob Milgrom, noticing that the phrase occurs in both this verse and the previous one, comments that "the fact that the idiom is repeated indicates that the purposes of this passage is to stress the positioning of the lamps."
Nachmanides takes a different approach, reporting that "The meaning of this is to state that Aharon lit the lamps all his life. For although the commandment may be validly performed by his sons, as it is said, 'Aharon and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain' (Shemot 27:21, NJPS), it was he who was zealous in the fulfillment of this great commandment. Perhaps he deduced, from the verse 'Aharon shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting outside the curtain of the Pact to burn from evening to morning before the L-RD regularly' (Vayikra 24:3, NJPS), that it was he whom G-d chose [to light the lamps] as long as he lived." Nachmanides suggests that Aharon felt that he personally had been called to attend to this particular duty and although it could have been quite properly done by his sons, he responded to G-d's choice of him by choosing to do it himself as long as he could do so.
Rabbi Samson RaphaelHirsch has yet another perspective to share: "When Aharon did this, and, by correspondingly arranging the direction of the lights on the Menorah expressed that the priest was to see to it that all the spiritual efforts of the nation were to be directed to G-d and His Torah, this was no presumptuous priestly arrogance but only fulfilling that which G-d had commanded Moshe." According to this, Aharon was acting as a role model and demonstrating for all the successive generations of priests that it is the calling and function of the priest to direct or focus the spiritual endeavours of G-d's people towards G-d Himself and His commandments. More, this function is not the imagination of the priest, wanting to elevate himself, but on the contrary is a function explicitly given and commanded by G-d through Moshe.
We can see, then, that the Jewish commentators are puzzled why the Torah, which is normally quite terse and economic with its words, should take the space to report that Aharon carried out the instructions about lighting the lamps. They feel compelled to offer a number of plausible explanations, since it strikes them as highly unusual that the normal and routine performance of one's duties would attract any attention at all, let alone generate words of praise of commendation. To use a military analogy, you don't win a Victoria Cross simply by turning up and fighting the battle like everyone else, no matter how hard or inconvenient you may personally find it; you are awarded the Victoria Cross - often posthumously - for outstanding acts of bravery involving significant personal risk and sacrifice.
Yeshua asks his disciples to imagine that they have a servant who has been out ploughing or looking after the sheep all day and evening has come. When he comes in, Yeshua poses the question, will you say to him, "Come at once and recline at table" (Luke 17:7, ESV) or rather, "Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink" (v. 8, ESV)? It is the servant's job to serve the master, in those days, at all times. Does the master, Yeshua wants to know, "thank the servant because he did what was commanded" (v. 9, ESV)? If he is a paid servant, of course he will be paid, but the master does not thank the servant for doing his job. Then he turns the story around on the disciples and tells them, ">So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty' (v. 10, ESV)". Thanks are due only when the level of service exceeds what is normally expected and there is an implication in Yeshua's words that only doing one's duty is somehow insufficient or falling short. Darrell Bock points out that the verb "direct, command" used here show G-d instructing angels (Galatians 3:19), the apostles directing churches (1 Corinthians 7:17) and the empire commanding soldiers (Luke 3:13). "The servant," Bock concludes, "does his duty."2
The early rabbis too paint the position of the servant in humble tones. Yochanan ben Zakkai, who taught in the first generation after Yeshua, through the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, is reported to have said, "If you have studied much Torah, do not claim merit for yourself, because for this you were created" (m. Pirkei Avot 2.8). Antigonos of Socho, who lived in the third century before Yeshua, said, "Be not like the slaves who minister to their master for the sake of receiving reward, but be like slaves who minister to the master not for the sake of the bounty; and let the fear of heaven be upon you" (1.3). Respect for G-d, Bock notes, leads to dutiful service. G-d is not obligated to us because to our obedience; although He is always gracious, we must not presume upon His grace.
Rav Sha'ul writes about the status and duty of believers as servants: "This is how one should regard us, as servants of Messiah and stewards of the mysteries of G-d. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy" (1 Corinthians 4:1-2, ESV). As we have been entrusted with the gospel, in our mouths and in our lives, we will be held accountable for the way we administer those gifts to those around us. Yeshua was very explicit in His Great Commission: "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20, NASB), echoed by Rav Sha'ul in his writings: "He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Messiah, as though G-d were entreating through us; we beg you on behalf of Messiah, be reconciled to G-d" (2 Corinthians 5:19-20, NASB).
Aharon was instructed in this straightforward matter: light the lights on the Menorah and make sure the light shines; every day. His obedience and faithfulness were recorded for all generations in the Torah. We are instructed in a similarly plain matter: proclaim Yeshua and the kingdom of G-d, bringing His word of reconciliation to the world. When the book of the ages is written, will we find a simple note in the margin against our name and the instruction: they did what they were told?
1. - Avigdor Bonchek, What's Bothering Rashi - Bamidbar, Feldheim 2001, page 66.
2. - Darrell L. Bock, Luke 9:51-24:53, ECNT Baker Academic 1996, pages 1393-1394.
Further Study: Malachi 2:7; Ephesians 6:18-20; 2 Corinthians 6:1
Application: How do you cope with direct instructions? Do you just do them, exactly as given, or do you try to find some way to enhance or modify them to bring a little variation, perhaps a little innovation or ownership? Check in with the Adjutant General back at headquarters to make sure you still know what His orders for you actually are!
07:47 27May18 TB: A particularly apt word in a generation that so often expresses our sense of entitlement. Re-learning that we are not entitled to grace, mercy is mercy and not our right, and that it is out of a loving response to the overwhelming grace of Messiah Jesus in rescuing us that we are privileged to serve him is a lesson that is refreshing.
13:32 28May18 Jeremy Standen: Thank you so much for this teaching.
Yes, sometimes we have to take a step back and look at the things we do regularly from a distance to see the broader picture. The Anglican Church of England sadly has become an enormous machine requiring many people to apply oil to the moving parts of the mechanism. It's when you analyse the rules and order of things we realise that some are in fact man made rules and requirements, not G-d's. When all is said and done we have to ask ourselves "Does this task bring glory to G-d?" and if we are responding to His request out of love and not duty then the walk with Him is a little closer.
23:06 28May18 Ted Simon: Compelling. Thank you.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2018
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