Beha’alotcha: In Praise of Lambs

hero image
11 Jun 2008

What do Cal Ripken Jr. and Aharon HaKohen (the High Priest) have in common?

Probably nothing – except in the mind of American Jews who have a penchant of connecting the sublime to the ridiculous.

Aharon receives the mitzvah to light the Menorah everyday. In its summary statement, the Torah states (Numbers, 8:3) “Aharon did so; he lit the lamps, just as God commanded.” Since the working assumption is that Aharon, the model spiritual persona, follows (God’s) orders, why is this necessary? Rashi further confounds by stating this verse indicates Aharon’s virtue — that he did not change. It would seem counterintuitive to praise Aharon for not altering a basic ritual.

If the Torah wants to praise Aharon, is it short of material? After all, is this not the same Aharon who reveled in his younger brother’s ascendancy; the great pursuer of peace beloved by all of the Jewish people; the man willing to sacrifice his spiritual destiny for klal yisrael. For all of Aharon’s extraordinary accomplishments, the Torah seems to elevate the fairly ordinary.

Unless of course, that is the point.

A famous midrash (1) poses a fascinating, almost childlike question. What is the most significant verse in the Torah? What would you say? Many might opt for the Shema, the raison d’etre of the believing Jew. The chessed oriented amongst us might choose “Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself”, a pasuk (and a motto) that succinctly captures the Jewish motif of kindness. Indeed, both suggestions are presented by the Chachmei Hamidrash.

Rabbi Shimon Ben Nanas however, suggests a strange choice “and the one lamb you shall bring in the morning and the second lamb shall be brought in the afternoon” – the pasuk that relates the imperative of twice-daily tamid offerings in the Sanctuary. The surprising conclusion of the midrash? (after a Rabbinic vote), Ben Nanas emerges triumphant.

How incredibly mystifying! A verse extolling the praise of the daily morning and afternoon lambs trumps the Shema and Love Thy Neighbor?

The subtle message of the midrash might very well be that in a world that extols the grand gesture, Judaism elevates the simple and in a society that seeks to break routine, Judaism demands it. For some, Judaism has been relegated to an annual worldwide Yom Kippur conference at a synagogue near you while for others it is a weekly Shabbos experience. In fact, Judaism is a “daily”: daily prayer, daily study, daily Shema all form the normative core of traditional Jewish life.

While Shema and “Love your neighbor” night be the headline mantras of Judaism, it is the notion of the morning and afternoon lamb, i.e. the absolute obligation/sacrifice of the daily offering, that serves as a paradigm of commitment. For the goal of Torah is to create a sensitivity to the constant presence of the Almighty, wherever, whenever – something that can only be achieved with utter consistency. Many Jews model this commitment in a multiplicity of manners – from the mashkimei beis hamedrash to the daily minyanaires to the paragons of reliable and humble kindness that the landscape of our wonderful Jewish communities.

Routine, however, is not to be confused with rote. Inspired consistency is the name of the game. Perhaps this was the greatest achievement of Aharon, the model spiritual personality. Aharon the master of the grand gesture, never slighted the sublime significance of the daily one. Further, as Rashi stated, he never changed, i.e. he summoned the same inspiration in year thirty as he did in year one.

Hence, Cal Ripken and Aharon HaKohein. Even the neophyte sports fan recognizes that the only mark in modern sports history not imperiled is Cal Ripken’s remarkable streak of 2632 consecutive games played, spanning May 30, 1982 until Sept. 19, 1998. Consider the fact that the closest competitor today has logged in about 550 games and you begin to fathom the magnitude of the accomplishment.

About 10 years ago 70,000 Jews crowded Madison Square Garden and the Nassau Coliseum to celebrate the conclusion of the Talmud, a feat accomplished by covering one page of Talmud everyday for 2,711 days (without an offseason). I was fortunate to be one of the attendees. It changed my life and the life of several of my congregants. The march of the relentless pages of Talmud has both haunted and challenged us – but most certainly has inspired us. In March, 2005 over 100,000 Jews filled the seats (including several thousand for a local Los Angeles celebration).

Not to oversimplify: The tension of daily inspirational living dare not be ignored; nor does lack of inspiration obviate Judaism’s absolute commitment to routine. Nevertheless, as modern Jews we need not seek the grand gesture or the right moment to begin our spiritual quest: The time is now and tomorrow and its morrow. Let the games (or the lambs) begin!

Good Shabbos,

Asher Brander

1. Found in the introduction to the ein yaakov

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.