On the occasion of Akiva's becoming Bar Mitzvah

Numbers 8

1 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,

2 Speak unto Aaron and say unto him, When thou lightest the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light over against the candlestick.

3 And Aaron did so; he lighted the lamps thereof over against the candlestick, as the LORD commanded Moses.

4 And this work of the candlestick was of beaten gold, unto the shaft thereof, unto the flowers thereof, was beaten work: according unto the pattern which the LORD had shewed Moses, so he made the candlestick.

To judge from the well-known midrash that Rashi brings at the beginning of our parashah, Aaron the Priest was in a very distressful mood at the conclusion of last week’s Torah reading. Day after day, he had witnessed how each of the princes of the other tribes had been given a turn to present gifts and offerings in honour of the dedication of the sanctuary. Now Aaron was upset that the tribe of Levi had not been included among them.

It was in response to Aaron’s distress that God now reassured him:

"By your life! Your role is greater than theirs, because you light and prepare the lamps."

The commentators have puzzled over the meaning of this passage. Why should Aaron have been so upset? Had the tribe of Levi really been slighted? After all, they had already been the focus of a full eight-day consecration ceremony of their own that we read about in the book of Vayyikra. And during the ceremony of the princes, didn’t the Kohanim and Levi’im have an active and visible role in the offering up of the sacrifices?

Furthermore, even if we allow that Aaron had some cause for feeling affronted, how did the command to light the menorah change anything?

After all, this mitzvah is hardly a new one. The command to prepare the lighting of the menorah has already been issued before, in the book of Shemot (30:8). So Aaron is not being told anything that he did not know previously.

And if the reason for choosing this mitzvah was to enhance his self-esteem or tribal pride, then couldn’t we think of several other commands related to the Kohanim and Levi’im that would have made the point much more clearly? There is, for example, the recitation of the Birkat Kohanim; or the solemn ceremony of Yom Kippur, when the High Priests alone enters the Holy of Holies; or the unique garments that only the Kohen gets to wear; or the special gifts, the t’rumah, ma’aser and sacrificial portions that the people must set aside for the Priests and Levites.

The preparation of the menorah seems very unimpressive by comparison.

I would therefore like to suggest a slightly different explanation of the story.

Let’s try to imagine ourselves in Aaron’s situation. He had just witnessed a very public and pompous ceremonial that had lasted for twelve days, involving the most distinguished leaders of the people, the nesi’im of the tribes., Each had come in turn to the Mishkan and conferred upon it an assortment of valuable gifts, offered their sacrifices, and… disappeared.

The dedication of the Mishkan was a one-time event. It was not turned into an annual celebration, and required no long-term commitment from its participants. With a great deal of fanfare, it briefly shone the spotlight on the leaders of the tribes, and then released them to go about their normal lives. The fact is that, apart from one brief mention of these nesi’im in our parashah—significantly, in connection with the sounding of trumpets in a rather ostentatious parade ceremony—we never hear from those princes again for the duration of the Torah.

I can well imagine that Aaron would have been disturbed by such a sight. He would have wondered: Is this the kind or religion that I and my tribe were chosen to serve? Is the Torah just a matter of showy public rituals for the nobility, that don’t have any long-lasting effects on people’s spirituality? Is this something I really want to be part of?

It was at this point that the Almighty reminded Aaron of one of his special mitzvah—the daily kindling of the menorah.

What is involved in the preparation of a menorah?

On the surface, it seems like such a simple job: You light a match, hold it next to the wick and voilà!

Now, try it with an oil lamp.

If the lamp was used previously, then it has to be cleaned out. I can testify from the accumulated experience of several Hanukkahs that this is not an easy or clean job. And for the Temple you couldn’t just buy your olive oil off the supermarket shelf; it had to be specially grown, preserved, pressed and stored according to halakhic standards or purity. Each cup of oil had to be carefully measured out as it was poured, so that it would burn through the night. The wicks also had to be prepared and positioned individually; and the fire had to be carried from the altar.

Unlike the procession of princely gifts, most of the work required for the preparation of the menorah went unobserved, without huge crowds cheering or congratulating. It was a responsibility that had to be taken care of every day, not only on a special inaugural ceremony.

When the Kohen stood up to light the lamps, to cast its wonderful spiritual aura upon the House of God, it must have seemed to many like an easy job. Most people probably did not give much thought to it, and just came to expect that the Temple should always be lit up all night.

I think that when we understand the matter in this way, we can appreciate how appropriate it was that the Kadosh Barukh-Hu should remind Aaron what are the real values that are represented by the tribe of Levi.

If we translate this idea into the language of the theatre, with which Akiva is so familiar, we could say it as follows: The Levi’im must demonstrate in their own lives and actions that the real path of Torah is not something that happens instantly in centre stage on a glitzy opening night. In reality, it is the accomplishment of innumerable anonymous carpenters, stage-hands, tailors, electricians, cosmeticians and others, who commit themselves to work behind the scenes for the good of the production.

Note carefully that when God does not just say that Aaron is to "light the lamps," but rather to "light and prepare the lamps." It is the tedious background preparation that is at the root of the mitzvah.

You have seen enough of the workings of our own congregation to appreciate that this is the way things are done here. Somehow when we show up on Shabbat or Yom Tov we find that Kiddush or se’udah sh’lishit has been prepared, the siddurim are on their shelves, the electric timers have been set—and hopefully the bills will have been paid as well. The elves who did all that work are the true students of Aaron.

You, Akiva, are not just a student, but an actual relative, a great-great-great-great-nephew, a member of the tribe of Levi, ready to take on the tasks that come with your yihus.

I think these ideas are illustrated in the following story which, as far as I know, is a true one:

It happened once that, that on a flight to America, Rabbi Kolitz, the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem found himself seated next to a secular kibbutznik. Since kibbutzniks tend to be very uninhibited about such things, he turned to the rabbi and asked him a question:
"Your Rabbi-ship, I want to ask you about something that has always puzzled me: On the kibbutz we celebrate bar-mitzvahs and weddings too. I’ve also attended bar-mitzvahs and weddings of my religious relatives.
"I’ve noticed that we secular Israelis make a really big deal of the bar-mitzvahs, while our weddings are much more subdued. But among religious Jews it seems to be exactly the opposite: The bar-mitzvah is a quiet occasion, with maybe just some herring and a cup of le-hayyim; while your weddings are absolutely wild—feasting, singing and dancing into the night,
"So, Rabbi, can you explain to me why there should be such a difference?"
Rabbi Kolitz smiled and gave the following answer:
"What, after all, does a Bar-Mitzvah celebrate? It’s when a boy put on t’fillin for the first time. In our communities, the boys will continue wearing t’fillin six days a week for the rest of their lives. So the Bar Mitzvah day is hardly special.
"The wedding, on the other hand, will likely be the only one that this couple will ever have. Therefore it is an occasion for special festivity.
"For the non-observant, however, the matter is exactly reversed. The bar-mitzvah day might be the only day in his life that the boy will ever see that set of t’fillin, and so you make a special occasion of it. But in secular society marriages are so short-lived and frequent that there is no need to treat the first wedding as a big deal."

Akiva, I trust you are the sort of person who can resist being overwhelmed by this day.

You are bright enough to realize that being a Bar Mitzvah has nothing to do with the spiffy clothes or fancy dinners. With respect to its real significance, it is hard to see how this day is different from all other shabbatot:

You are in shul today, as you were last week and as you will be next week. The prayers that you recited this morning are the same ones that you recited last week or last year--though you no longer have a choice in the matter.

Yesterday, already, you put on t’fillin, and you will do it tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that.

True, this week is the first time that you can lead the service as the ba’al t’fillah or read publicly from the Torah—but we expect that you continue doing those things frequently for many years to come, as well as to deliver divrei Torah.

As Rabbi Kolitz tried to show, the Torah is less impressed by things that are rare and special, than it is by those duties that we carry out with constancy and dedication.

This is in fact an important principle of Talmudic law "tadir ve-she’eino tadir, tadir kodem": When you have two mitzvahs, one of which is performed more frequently than the other, the frequent one takes priority.

In this way we see that what is valued by Judaism are not the exceptional occasions that arrive with a loud fanfare and are not heard about afterwards. On the contrary, we show special esteem for the humble, daily activities.

The simple translation of the Hebrew word "beha’alotekha" is "when you set up [the candles]." However, the same word can also be read as "when you elevate yourself." Perhaps this is a message that we can all take with us from the parashah, that in faithfully serving others we raise ourselves to higher levels on the ladder of our spiritual betterment. This is a value that is especially associated with our tribe of Levi.

So, Akiva, your mission as an adult has now been defined by your Bar-Mitzvah parashah: "beha’alote’kha": to raise yourself up to the degree of a true Levi, to help cast the light of Torah upon the world.

Or, to put it in terms that might be more appropriate to a young man who enjoys performing magic tricks: This is your opportunity to "Levi-tate" yourself.

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My e-mail address is elsegal@acs.ucalgary.ca

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*Lay sermon delivered at Congregation House of Jacob - Mikveh Israel , Calgary, June 13 1998, on the Bar Mitzvah celebration of my son Akiva Moshe Romer Segal