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Bamidbar 5766-2006

“Valuable Insights from the Priestly Logistics”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Much of this week’s parasha, parashat Bamidbar, deals with the logistics of Israel’s encampment in the wilderness. The Torah describes how each tribe of Israel was precisely counted and instructed how and where they were to camp around the Tabernacle. The parasha concludes with a description of the specific roles of the Levites and their responsibilities in assembling and disassembling the Tabernacle.

In charge of executing all the functions of the Tabernacle was Aaron’s oldest surviving son, Elazar. It was because of the tragic death of Elazar’s elder brothers, Nadav and Avihu, that Elazar assumed the second highest Priestly position in Israel. Upon Aaron’s death, Elazar succeeds his father to become the High Priest. The Midrash movingly describes the memorable ceremony that took place immediately prior to Aaron’s passing at which Elazar dons his father’s magnificent high priestly garments.

In Numbers 4:16, the Torah tells of Elazar’s responsibilities: “Oof’koo’dat Elazar ben Aharon ha’Cohen: sheh’men ha’mah’or, oo’k’toh’ret ha’sah’meem, oo’min’chaht ha’tah’meed, v’sheh’men ha’mish’chah, p’koo’daht kol ha’mish’kan v’chol ah’sher bo, b’ko’desh oov’chay’lav,” The charge of Elazar son of Aaron the Cohen is the oil of illumination, the incense spices, the meal-offering of the Tamid–the continual offering, and the anointing oil–the charge of the entire Tabernacle and everything in it, of the Sanctuary and its utensils.

Elazar was the veritable “golden boy” of Israel, the child who did everything right and took his responsibilities seriously. He was not arrogant like his older brothers, about whom the Midrash (Tanchuma, Acharei Mot) says, continually griped: “When will the old men [Moses and Aaron] pass on so that we [Nadav and Avihu] can assume leadership of the Jewish people?” Elazar was prepared to wait for his time in the sun to come. Elazar not only waited, he served. He not only served, he served faithfully and with a full heart.

There was no way that Elazar did not know that he was special, and yet he never gloried in it or boasted about it. He carried a noble pedigree, perhaps the most distinguished pedigree of the 603,550 Jewish males who came out of Egypt. He was, after all, the son of Aaron, the High Priest, and heir apparent to the most important religious office in the national structure of the Jewish people. After Aaron was gone, in his hands the Jewish people were to entrust their relationship to G-d. It was through the breastplate that Elazar wore that the vital messages from G-d would be communicated to the people.

But Elazar’s job was no picnic. Aside from being in charge of assembling and disassembling the Tabernacle and its numerous parts and details, Numbers 4:16 tells us that Elazar the Cohen was personally responsible for the oil of illumination used in the Menorah, the incense spices, the meal offering of the Tamid, and the anointing oil. Being in charge not only meant supervising the compounding of these sacred items, but according to most commentaries, it meant that Elazar himself was to personally transport them, despite their immense weight. The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah, 4:20) says that Elazar carried the oil of illumination in his right hand, the incense in his left, the meal offering for the Tamid on his arm, and the jug of the anointing oil was somehow attached to his belt. This enormous burden required almost supernatural strength. It was Elazar’s dedication to the Tabernacle and to G-d that made this incredible burden bearable.

In Proverbs 25:6, King Solomon states: “Do not glory in the presence of the king, and do not stand in the place of great men.” The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah, 4:20) derives from this verse the lesson that if we are not permitted to glory before human beings of flesh and blood, how much more humble must we be before the Al-Mighty. Similarly, the Midrash cites a statement attributed to the prophet Elijah positing that anyone who enlarges the dignity of heaven and reduces their own dignity, causes the dignity of heaven to be enlarged and their own dignity as well.

In one of the most moving stories recorded in the Bible, the second Book of Samuel tells us that when the holy ark was returned from captivity in the time of King David, David danced wildly before G-d, leading the people with shouts of joy and the sounds of the horn. Upon seeing David from the window, Michal (David’s wife and daughter of King Saul) was offended by the king’s lack of dignity. When David returned to bless his household, Michal berated her husband for shamelessly revealing himself and behaving like one of the handmaidens. In one of the most stirring verses in all of Scripture, King David responds (Samuel II 6:22): “Oo’n’ka’lo’tee od mee’zot, v’ha’yee’tee sha’fal b’ay’nai, v’im ha’ah’mah’hoat ah’sher ah’mart, ee’mahm ee’kah’vay’dah,” I will disgrace myself even more than this, debase myself in my own eyes, and with those handmaidens about whom you spoke–with them I will get honor!

Is it disgraceful for a king to dance wildly surrounded by the common people? Or does it depend on the occasion and context? Is it undignified for a learned rabbi to teach Aleph Bet to young school children? Or is it an opportunity for him to profoundly impact on these children’s lives? Is it undignified for a parent to change a child’s dirty diaper? Or is it the greatest honor?

The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah, 4:20) cites Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi who notes that Elazar the Priest was the person of greatest authority and rank, a prince of all the princes. Look how much authority he had! One would imagine that because he was so powerful that he would pass the “menial” task of carrying the Tabernacle furnishings to others. Not Elazar. He knew well that this charge could not be passed off, that there was no such thing as glory before G-d, only humility.

It was humility that made Elazar great, great enough for us to admire him and to constantly strive to follow in his footsteps.

May you be blessed.

The official date of Yom Yerushalayim is 28 Iyar, Thursday night and Friday. In order to avoid desecration of Shabbat, the Yom Yerushalayim parade and public ceremonies in Israel will be on Thursday. The special Yom Yerushalayim prayers will be recited on Thursday night and Friday.