One of the fascinating midrashim on parsha Shemini pictures Aharon, the Kohen Gadol, brother of Moshe, leader extraordinaire, hesitating before going to fulfill his sacred duty, because on the Mizbeach, the altar where the sacrificial order is to take place, he sees a vision — a vision of the Golden Calf.
Moshe turns to him and says, “Approach the Altar” (9:7), the Midrash relating that Moshes says, “Why are you embarrassed (and therefore hesitating)? This is what you were chosen to do!”
The Slonimer Rebbe asks, “Really? Moshe, you’re telling Aharon not to be embarrassed over the Golden Calf! It may be that he didn’t sin completely — he certainly didn’t worship the calf — but to deny that Aharon had some connection to the Golden Calf is ludicrous. Of course he should have at least a minimal sense of embarrassment!”
To the first point, the answer he gives is that the main sin of the Golden Calf was not in the making of it, which Aharon was involved in. It was the dancing, in which Aharon did not participate. So Moshe says, “What are you embarrassed about? You had nothing to do with the sin component of the Golden Calf!”
Then the Slonimer Rebbe takes Moshe’s comment a step further.
“Why are you embarrassed? You were chosen for this exact reason!” Meaning, the fact that you get embarrassed is the key character trait that allows you to be the Kohen Gadol.
It is certainly a tremendous character trait, to be humbled and to feel humiliation over a misdeed. However, it is troubling all the same, because if the criteria for being the Kohen Gadol is that you are the most humble person, then isn’t there a person higher on the humblest-of-all totem pole?
The Slonimer Rebbe explains that there are two kinds of humility.
1. The first kind is the one in which a person feels small and inconsequential with respect to the Creator of the World. Seeking the cosmos he says “I’m a speck in the infinity of the Universe.”
2. The second kind of humility comes from embarrassment, through introspection, through looking at one’s deeds and realizing, I am unworthy to seek the presence of the Almighty.
The first type is Moshe’s model of humility. Having stood on the mountain he understood how small and insignificant he was. Aharon’s humility is described in number 2. With all the associations made between Aharon and the Golden Calf, Aharon has to live with this tarnish on his reputation. He reaches an even greater height through his own broken heart and feeling of worthlessness.
Moshe never achieved Aharon’s form of humility because he was never involved in any kind of sin to the degree that Aharon was involved. And so Moshe is the chosen leader who is able to confront G-d and tell Him, “You can’t destroy the people!” But Moshe does not receive the resting of G-d’s spirit, so intrinsic to the representative to brings the offerings and sacrifices on behalf of the people.
So significant is this particular brand of humility that King David wrote in Chapter 51 of Tehillim (the one composed after Natan the Prophet chastised him for his role in taking BatSheva and causing the death of Uriah), “For You do not wish a sacrifice, or I should give it; You do not desire a burnt offering. The sacrifices of G-d are a broken spirit; O G-d, You will not despise a broken and crushed heart.” (verses 18-19)
Of all people, King David realized that when you’ve been to the Dark Side of sin, there’s only one road back. And it’s a difficult road of facing up to error, of recognizing bad choices in life.
Who is greater? The person who sees G-d as beyond infinity and, then upon reflection says, “And I am nothing”? Or the person who reflects on personal life choices, says, “I should not have done that. I have to live with my error. I am so grateful for a second chance. I am unworthy of having a role in a society. I’ll take what I can get. Thanks to the Almighty for second chances.”
I don’t think we have to look at these two types as in competition. But we do need to ask ourselves which of these is more relatable to our experience, and where can our humility take us if indeed we see our smallness on account of it?
It’s a personal challenge for each of us, to reach the point where our humility is not only sincere but has the chance to outshine the humility of those who haven’t tasted sin.
Moshe became a “servant of G-d” and a “Man of G-d.” Aharon is arguably most famous for being a lover and pursuer of peace. I don’t think either of these reputations are accidental.
They come from knowing yourself, facing your personal devils, and making a decision of where am I going to focus my energy. Moshe focused it on Torah and G-d. Aharon focused it on people and G-d.
Whichever way we can identify is the path we ought to forge. And hopefully, like Moshe and Aharon before us, and like the model set by King David in Tehillim, let our efforts bring us closer and closer to that ultimate goal of having a unique and special relationship with G-d.