Parashat Shemini begins with Moshe’s instructions to Aharon and his sons, and to the nation’s elders on the eighth and final day on the Mishkan’s inauguration. This was the day when Aharon and his sons began serving as kohanim for the first time, and when the Shekhina took residence in the Mishkan. After the preparations for this event were made, the nation assembled by the entrance to the Mishkan, whereupon Moshe announced, “This is the thing that the Lord commanded that you do, so that the glory of the Lord shall appear to you” (9:6).
Moshe does not speak to the nation any further, but merely proceeds to tell Aharon to approach the altar and serve as kohen gadol for the first time, offering that day’s sacrifices. Seemingly, then, the announcement “This is the thing that the Lord commanded that you do” was made as an introduction to these rituals, informing the people that everything they would now observe – Aharon and his sons’ offering of sacrifices in the Mishkan – was all commanded by God.
Chazal however, in Torat Kohanim, interpret this verse differently, explaining that Moshe here was telling the people, “This is the thing that you shall do: eliminate the evil inclination from your heart, and the glory of the divine presence will immediately be revealed to you.” Moshe was admonishing the people that beyond complying with the particular commands relevant to the sacrifices in the Mishkan, they needed to more generally “eliminate the evil inclination from your heart.”
Numerous different approaches have been taken to explain Torat Kohanim’s intent. Netziv, in Ha’ameik Davar, suggests that according to Torat Kohanim, Moshe’s announcement in a sense foreshadowed the tragedy that would befall Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s two older sons who, on that very day, brought an unwarranted incense offering and were killed. Moshe was warning the people to “eliminate” from within themselves the natural tendency to innovate new modes of worship, to decide on one’s own how religion should be practiced. Others explain that Moshe refers here to the “evil inclination” of arrogance, to which all people are susceptible after completing a major undertaking. With the completion of the Mishkan, Moshe urged the people not to excessively pride themselves on their great achievement, and to remember that as much as they’ve accomplished, there is always room for further growth and improvement. Yet another explanation is that Moshe refers to the “evil inclination” of envy and competition. When a group of people assemble together to work towards a lofty, idealistic goal, they are prone to end up fighting, with each insisting on taking center stage or having his precise vision followed even when others disagree.
A more general insight into Chazal’s remark was offered by Rav Yisrael Alter of Ger, the Beit Yisrael, who found it significant that Chazal speak here in such broad terms. As mentioned, numerous different possible explanations have been suggested to identify the precise “yetzer ha-ra” (“evil inclination”) to which Moshe was referring according to Torat Kohanim. Yet, Torat Kohanim itself chose to remain vague, and to use the very broad term “evil inclination,” without specifying which particular human vice Moshe warned the people to overcome at this critical moment. This ambiguity, the Beit Yisrael suggests, was intentional, as Torat Kohanim seeks to apply Moshe’s announcement to all of us, at all times, under all circumstances. Whenever we attempt to build a Mishkan, to bring God into our midst, to live meaningful lives of devoted service of the Almighty, there will be a “yetzer ha-ra” of one sort or another for us to overcome. Torat Kohanim specifically chose to speak in broad, general terms because in every era and in every circumstance, a different “yetzer ha-ra” confronts us. The spiritual challenges of one generation differ drastically from those of other generations; the spiritual challenges of one person differ drastically from those of other people; the spiritual challenges of one stage of life differ drastically from those of other stages of life. There is no single “yetzer ha-ra” that presents itself when a “Mishkan” is built, when people seek to serve God. Spiritual challenges come in countless different forms, and we must be prepared to successfully meet and overcome each one to the best of our ability.