Rabbi Yaakov Neuberger
Rabbi Yaakov Neuburger

Leveraging Futility in Avodas Hashem

For many years, one of Rashi's themes puzzled me and I attributed that to flawed faith and wanting emunah. However having recently discovered that one the most respected minds and souls of our time, Harav Shteinman shlit"a (Ayelet Hashachar, Shmini, 10:3) was also troubled by the Rashi, I was encouraged to reconsider.

I am referring to Rashi's closing comment on the parsha of the mei meriva, that brief episode that wipes away the life long dream of both Moshe and Aharon. After recording that they have been denied ever entering the Land of Israel, the text concludes with the comment: "and [Hashem] was sanctified through [these waters]". In order to explain to us how this debacle distinguished Hashem, Rashi (20:13) reminds us that when Hashem metes out punishment to the righteous, He instills both His awe and His sanctity amongst people.

Rashi (Vayikra 10:3) introduced us to this idea in his commentary to the death of Nadav and Avihu, Aharon's two sons who were punished as they added their own service to the celebration of opening of the mishkan.  Here too, Aharon was told that the loss of his children brought greater awe and admiration to Hashem's name. According to Rashi, Moshe reminds his brother that Hashem had already announced that He will be sanctified by those whom He holds to be His closest. Understanding that through their tragic and untimely demise his children had been chosen for this great service brought the grieving father some measure of solace.

No doubt receiving Moshe Rabbeinu's reassurance on any matter consoles and strengthens, yet I never understood how exacting punishment against our greatest can inspire and uplift. Within me it generates confusion, disappointment and even a sense of personal futility.

I did chance across an interesting and creative response to this, penned by Harav Zilbershtein shlit"a, one of the sages and great teachers of our time. In his widely acclaimed Aleinu Leshabeach, he suggests that it is not the punishment of our holiest per se that promotes compliance and sanctity. Rather it is the discerning eye that watches how Aharon reacts to his son's death and learns from the greatness of that moment and from the faith upon which his reaction is built. Moshe and Aharon are faulted for a lapse that we will forever speculate to understand, but they accept with perfect faith their censure from Hashem in face of the enormous disappointment that they suffer. Observing those measured reactions will move us and inspire us, and from them we can draw spirituality and awe.

However the simple reading of Rashi does not refer to the response of Moshe, Aharon or of his children, though it must have been stirring beyond question. Rashi only refers to the midas hadin and leaves us asking how are we to absorb the midas hadin that we witness in a way that will give greater honor to Hashem?

Certainly the punishments dealt to Moshe, Aharon and his children will discourage all but absolute compliance to Hashem's instructions, and will powerfully remind us that ours is not to improvise or to adlib rather to carry out. But there must be more than that if we are to find our way from Moshe's punishment to awe filled reverence of Hashem.

Perhaps the sense of futility that this Rashi may generate can indeed be skillfully morphed into an avodas Hashem that is positive and knows no ulterior motive. Perhaps, the understanding that nothing guarantees for us what we may want in this world - not even Moshe's and Aharon's unflagging pursuit of Hashem's will - can shape for us a profoundly sincere and genuinely focused service of Hashem. It is in that moment of futility, that this Rashi may thrust upon us, that we are to pick ourselves up and through our continued dedication to Hashem announce uniquely and consistently our awe and our love for the Ribbono Shel Olam.

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