The Menorah and the Inauguration by the Princes of the Tribes

  • Rav Ezra Bick

This week’s shiurim are dedicated in memory of
Rebbetzin Ruth Schonfeld z”l
by Melinda Menucha Robeson

Translated by Kaeren Fish


Parashat Beha’alotekha begins with a command to Aharon concerning the lighting of the menorah. This brief unit raises several questions:

  1. Why is this command here, in between the inauguration of the Mishkan by the princes of the tribes, at the end of Parashat Naso, and the purification of the Leviim and their presentation for service, in the next section of Parashat Beha’alotekha?
  1. The laws of lighting the menorah were already given in their proper place, in Parashat Tetzaveh. Admittedly, our parasha introduces a detail that is new – “the seven lamps shall give light towards the body of the menorah” – but this only reinforces our question: Why could this detail not have been included in the description of the lighting in Sefer Shemot?
  1. The text emphasizes that Aharon did as he had been commanded (Bamidbar 8:3). This verse seemingly takes us back to the narrative, but it is difficult to understand how exactly it fits in. Presumably, Aharon carried out this command every day at the time of the lighting, and not just on the day he was commanded to do so, at the end of the inauguration of the Mishkan. There seems to be no need to write that Aharon fulfilled the mitzva, just as there is no statement attesting to his fulfillment of all the detailed instructions in Sefer Vayikra pertaining to the Mishkan service.
  1. Immediately after stating that Aharon carried out this command, the Torah adds a description of the menorah: “And this was the making of the menorah: it was of a piece of gold, from its shaft to its flowers it was of a piece; according to the model which the Lord had shown Moshe, so he made the menorah” (Bamidbar 8:4). This is a very partial description, omitting many of the details of the menorah, such as its bowls and its bulbs. Moreover, why is there a need to offer any description here at all, considering that the entire construction has already been set out in all its detail in Parashat Teruma?

Rashi, citing a well-known midrash, addresses the first question:

Why does the unit about the menorah follow directly after the unit about the princes of the tribes? Because when Aharon saw the inaugural gifts of the princes, he grew despondent at not having been included among them in the inauguration – neither he personally nor his tribe. The Holy One, blessed be He, told him: Your [portion] is greater than theirs, for you will light and prepare the lamps.

This midrash highlights the close connection between God’s command to Aharon in our parasha and the inaugural sacrifices brought as gifts by the princes of the tribes at the end of Parashat Naso. The midrash notes Aharon’s “despondency” – a sort of envy – over the fact that he was not included among them, although he was the prince of the tribe of Levi. The midrash suggests that the halakhic command that he received here concerning the lighting of the menorah was not actually necessary; it was simply God’s way of reminding Aharon of his important position – greater than that of the princes – in the service of the Mishkan. By means of a specific halakhic command, God emphasized to Aharon that the day-to-day service of the Mishkan was dependent on him alone.

The commentators struggle with this explanation. Is it possible that Aharon could have forgotten that he was responsible for the Mishkan service and the various sacrifices to be offered each and every day?

In order to understand this matter, we must go back to the inauguration of the Mishkan. The Torah offers two independent descriptions of this occasion. The one in Sefer Vayikra has its climax on the “eighth day,” when Aharon offers sacrifices, fire descends from the heavens, and God’s glory is revealed to Bnei Yisrael (Vayikra 9). The other description, in Sefer Bamidbar, is introduced with the words:

And it came to pass, on the day when Moshe had finished setting up the Mishkan… (Bamidbar 7:1)

That passage goes on to describe the sacrifices brought by the princes of the tribes. Seemingly, these two descriptions overlap in time, both occurring around the beginning of the month of Nissan, but they do not share a single common element – in Sefer Vayikra there are no princes, while in Sefer Bamidbar no mention is made of the kohanim, neither Aharon nor his sons. The endings of the respective units are also quite different. In Sefer Vayikra, the eight-day event ends with an impressive manifestation of God’s Presence, in fire and cloud. In Sefer Bamidbar, too, we find a conclusion to the inauguration ceremony – and this in fact serves as proof that such a ceremony does occur – but it is far less dramatic. Once the Torah finishes listing the sacrifices of the princes, we find just one additional verse:

And when Moshe came into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, he heard the Voice speaking to him from above the covering that was upon the Ark of Testimony, from between the two keruvim, and it spoke to him. (Bamidbar 7:89)

This verse parallels the description of God’s revelation to the nation in Vayikra, following the service of the eighth day:

And a fire emerged from before the Lord and it consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat, and when all the people saw [it] they shouted and fell upon their faces. (Vayikra 9:24)

The concluding verse at the end of Parashat Naso likewise describes an encounter with the Divine Presence, but here it is not a visual encounter but rather an aural one. Following the inauguration of the Mishkan, Moshe hears the Divine Voice speaking to him. Both verses describe revelation – one through fire, the other through words, prophecy, Torah.

Without attempting to sort out the practical question of how two inaugural ceremonies were held, and when, and the connection between them – none of which is so much as hinted to in the Torah – we might sum up by saying that the Torah describes two revelations and two definitions of the function of the Mishkan. Sefer Vayikra describes the Mishkan as a place for the sacrificial service. The Divine Presence in the Mishkan is signified by the acceptance of the sacrifice – the fire that consumes it. Sefer Bamidbar describes the Mishkan as a place of encounter with God: “And I will meet with you there.” The Divine Presence in the Mishkan is signified by Moshe’s hearing of the Divine Voice.

These are the two functions of the Mishkan. Sefer Vayikra, also known as Torat Kohanim, deals with the Mishkan as a place for offering sacrifices. It is therefore clear why the description of the inauguration in this sefer focuses on the kohanim. Seven days are devoted to their consecration and training, and at the focus of the eighth day we find Aharon offering the sacrifices. In Sefer Bamidbar, which describes the inauguration of the Mishkan as a place of meeting with the Divine Presence, we find a different ceremony, which is not dependent on a staff of Divine servants who are separated from amongst Bnei Yisrael and consecrated:

And I will meet there with Bnei Yisrael, and it shall be sanctified by My glory. (Shemot 29:43)

Surprisingly, in Parashat Naso the Torah describes the inauguration as though it is the princes themselves who offer the sacrifices. Despite the halakhic prohibition on anyone other than a kohen to offer upon the altar, there is no explicit mention here of the mediation of the kohanim. From the text itself one might have imagined that each prince offered his sacrifice personally. In contrast to Parashat Shemini, where the people are passive onlookers while the kohen performs the service, in Parashat Naso the people – via their representatives, the princes – consecrate and inaugurate the Mishkan.

This would seem to be related to the different purpose of the Mishkan in Sefer Bamidbar. The Mishkan as a place of encounter with God is not secluded and protected from Am Yisrael. In a more profound sense, the foundation of sanctity of the Mishkan as a place of meeting is, in fact, the sanctity of Am Yisrael. By definition, an encounter requires two parties. Thus, the completion of the construction of the Mishkan, in this sense, was dependent on the presence and actions of the princes, as representatives of the people. The sacrifices are attributed to them. The manifestation of the Divine Presence on this occasion is preceded by the command to send all those who are ritually impure out of the camp (chapter 5), since the foundation of the Divine Presence is the people and the sanctity of their camp. To express this in imagery that might make the distinction clearer, the Mishkan of Sefer Vayikra is a Mikdash (Sanctuary), while the Mishkan of Sefer Bamidbar is more like a synagogue.

This point is further reflected later in our parasha. Moshe commands that the Levi’im be taken “from amongst Bnei Yisrael.” When the Levi’im are brought before God, the people place their hands upon them (Bamidbar 8:10). Aharon lifts the Levi’im before God “of [from among] Bnei Yisrael” (Bamidbar 8:11). God explains that all of this is because the Levi’im are “wholly given to Me from among Bnei Yisrael, instead of those that open every womb, the firstborn of all of Bnei Yisrael” (8:15). The Torah emphasizes (as we have seen previously in Parashat Bamidbar) that the firstborn among Bnei Yisrael belong to God, and now the Levi’im come to replace them (8:17-18). In summary, the text notes:

Moshe and Aharon and all the congregation of Bnei Yisrael did to the Levi’im according to all that the Lord commanded Moshe concerning the Leviim, so Bnei Yisrael did to them. (8:20)

The Levi’im, custodians of the Mishkan, are the emissaries and representatives of Bnei Yisrael, replacing the firstborn in each family. If the Mishkan was run by the firstborn among the nation, it would be readily apparent that it was the Mishkan of the entire nation. It turns out, according to the description in our parasha, that the Levi’im are the substitutes for the firstborn, and they are wholly given for this service “from amongst Bnei Yisrael.” All of this is in stark contrast to the consecration of the kohanim, Aharon and his sons, in Parashat Tzav, where Bnei Yisrael have no role at all, and there is no mention of the kohanim being taken “from amongst” Bnei Yisrael.

Returning to our original question, Aharon watched the inauguration of the Mishkan by the princes of the tribes on behalf of the nation as a whole, and was troubled that he had no place in this ceremony. Of course, he understood that he would be at the center of the Mishkan as a place of worship. However, in this context – the inauguration of the Mishkan as a place of meeting with God, a place where one could hear God speaking – he had no place at all. And, to borrow Rashi’s terminology, he was “despondent.” Did he then have no place amongst Bnei Yisrael, the nation that was the foundation for the Divine Presence dwelling in their midst? Did he have no part in the Torah?

God’s response to him is, “When you light the lamps….” Your portion is greater than theirs. But in what sense does this role give Aharon a place in this definition of the Mishkan?

In order to understand the relationship between the lighting of the menorah and the inauguration by the princes, we must consider one further point.

It is true that the princes represent Am Yisrael. However, it must be remembered that the princes are individuals. Each prince brings his sacrifice and offers it. This sacrifice, from a halakhic perspective, has the status of an individual offering (see Zevachim 9b). And it is for this reason, I believe, that the Torah repeats the details of the sacrifice of each and every prince. The foundation of the process that is described is that each prince brings his own private offering – even if these offerings are identical in every way. As representatives, too, the princes do not collectively represent all of Am Yisrael; rather, each individual prince represents all the individuals comprising his tribe. On the first day it was Nachshon ben Aminadav who brought his offering, consisting of one silver dish, etc. On the second day, it was Netanel ben Tzo’ar who brought his own offering, and it is only when I compare the two descriptions that I discover that the two offerings are identical. The Torah repeats the offering of each and every prince because each was the individual offering of its owner, with no connection to the previous one.

This is as it should be. The offerings in the Mishkan are public offerings, for there is one service for the entire congregation. But when it comes to an encounter with God, hearing God’s voice speaking, the experience is a personal and individual one. It is the voice that a person hears speaking to him and to him alone. Thus, the Torah emphasizes, in what would otherwise be a superfluous addition, that when Moshe came into the Tent of Meeting he heard the Voice – not “the Voice that was there,” but “the Voice speaking to him.” The dialogue is personal. The very sanctity of the Mishkan, in this sense, is created through the offerings of individuals, who represent every individual in Am Yisrael. This point is also anchored in the very fact of their division into tribes. Am Yisrael, as a congregation, offers the daily sacrifice. The division into tribes, even though each tribe consists of a large population, already highlights the differences, the individual aspects.

It is this point that God addresses in His answer to Aharon. It is true that Aharon has no role in the special offering of each and every prince, each and every individual. The Torah therefore comes to remind him, “When you light the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light towards the body of the menorah.” This instruction, rather obscure in the Hebrew, is interpreted by the commentators (with slight variations) as a command that all seven lamps should face towards the body of the menorah. The light of the menorah is directed inward, towards the central shaft. Aharon’s role, as emphasized in Sefer Vayikra, concerns the Oneness and unity of the Dweller of this Sanctuary. The menorah, with its seven branches, has a center, towards which everything is directed. Aharon’s role in lighting it is not to spread light outward, but rather to direct it inward, towards the center. And according to the midrash, God promises him that this is a greater portion than that of the princes. Aharon’s role is to preserve and raise up the unified, anti-individualist aspect of Am Yisrael, which is at the foundation of the Mishkan as a place for sacrifice – the Mishkan that he inaugurated in Parashat Shemini.

We now understand the reason for the Torah’s partial description of the menorah. The menorah is “of a solid piece of gold” – a single unity, not a joining of different parts (as Rashi explains). Although it has different parts, it is nevertheless of a solid piece. The menorah itself symbolizes unity and oneness, the opposite of individualism. Aharon, lighting in such a way that the flames are directed towards the center, is responsible for maintaining this unity as a sort of counterbalance to what we might describe as the centrifugal force of the Mishkan as a place of meeting.

The command to Aharon follows immediately after the offerings of the princes and comes before the consecration of the Levi’im. The contrast is not between Aharon the Kohen and Am Yisrael – since it is clear that Aharon himself is part of the nation. Rather, the contrast is between Aharon as the symbol of unity, and the nation, comprising many different parts with some degree of connection between them. The Levi’im themselves are given over to Aharon to atone for Bnei Yisrael (Bamidbar 8:19). The Levi’im serve the individualist ideal, by maintaining boundaries “so that there be no plague among Bnei Yisrael when Bnei Yisrael come near to the Sanctuary” (Bamidbar 8:19). Aharon, by lighting the menorah, serves the opposite ideal.

Looking beyond the functional division, we might ask: why is Sefer Vayikra devoted to the Mishkan of sacrificial service, while Sefer Bamidbar is devoted to the Mishkan of encounter? The proper definition of Sefer Bamidbar is seemingly “the sefer of the journeys of Bnei Yisrael in the desert.” The nation journeys as a camp, with the Mishkan in the midst of the camp; when the cloud arises from atop the Mishkan and travels before them, they move on (Bamidbar 10:1, 33). The Mishkan that journeys – or, more accurately, the Divine Presence that journeys before them, seeking a path for them and leading them to Eretz Yisrael – is the Mishkan described at the end of Parashat Naso and the beginning of our parasha. This is the Mishkan that dwells with them in the midst of their impurity. Therefore the inauguration of this Mishkan is described only after the setting up of the camp (Parashat Bamidbar) and its final arrangement (Parashat Naso). The camp, and the Mishkan as part of it, sets off on its journey in the next part of the parasha.

Translated by Kaeren Fish