The power of commitment

The power of commitment

Beha’alotecha | Numbers 8:1-12:16

In parashat Beha’alotecha, we begin the account of Israel’s 39-year journey in the wilderness. After some final details having to do with the service of the Mishkan, we read about how God guided the Israelites’ journeys with the pillar of cloud and the order of march when the camp moved forward.

Our parasha begins, however, with the commandment to Aaron to light the menorah in the sanctuary each day. And then the Torah says, “Aaron did so.” Rashi tells us, citing the Sifrei, that these words come to declare Aaron’s praise because he did not act differently.

But would we really think that Aaron, God’s chosen high priest, wouldn’t do as he was instructed? Does the Torah really need to tell us this?

Later commentators, with this thought in mind, read Rashi differently. When Rashi says that Aaron did not act differently, he doesn’t mean that Aaron did the task as instructed, not changing the method or order or time of lighting. Rather, Rashi’s point is that Aaron himself didn’t act differently.

The Kotzker (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, 1787-1854, Poland) and the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Elijah ben Rabbi Shlomo Zalman, 1720-1797, Lithuania) both explained that there was no difference between the way he performed this commandment the first time and the way he performed it thereafter for the following 39 years, day after day. Each time he lit the menorah, he felt the same enthusiasm and the commandment never became a matter of rote to him.

It’s a nice thought, as the modern attitude of “been there, done that, have the T-shirt” — let’s move on to the next new thing — is troubling. But I believe this teaching is a bit too pious. I have a hard time believing that Aaron never had an off day, that he never woke up and wanted to roll over and go back to sleep.

I don’t think that Aaron always maintained his original enthusiasm. Rather, what is praiseworthy is that even though he had days when his enthusiasm failed, he was able to perform his assigned tasks. And so, after a time, he was able to reignite his enthusiasm.

[There] is a story, told by Rabbi Israel Friedmann, the Rizhiner, about a small Jewish town, far off from the main roads of the land. But it had all the necessary municipal institutions: a bathhouse, a cemetery, a hospital, and law court; as well as all sorts of craftsmen — tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, and masons. One trade, however, was lacking: there was no watchmaker. In the course of years many of the clocks became so annoyingly inaccurate that their owners just decided to let them run down, and ignore them altogether. There were others, however, who maintained that as long as the clocks ran they should not be abandoned. So they wound their clocks day after day, even though they knew that they were not accurate. One day the news spread through the town that a watchmaker had arrived, and everyone rushed to him with their clocks. But the only ones he could repair were those that had been kept running — the abandoned clocks had grown too rusty! (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Between God and Man: An Interpretation of Judaism”)

The hard thing in life isn’t going from project to project, always looking for something new and different. The real challenge is making a long-term commitment and sticking with it, even when it becomes difficult, boring, or routine. 

The real challenge is finding ways to rekindle old enthusiasms, to deepen understanding, and to find new layers of meaning in old tasks and relationships, to keep going when a lesser person would just walk away. And it is for this that the Torah declares Aaron’s praise.

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