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Shemini: By those who are near unto me will I be sanctified

Nechama Leibowitz
Reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department 

The great tragedy occurred at the supreme festive moment, before the eyes of all Israel and Aaron, the bereaved father, Moses explains:

And Moses said to Aaron: This is that which the Lord spoke, saying: By those that are near unto Me will I be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified. And Aaron was silent.

Two questions arise. First, we do not find in the Torah that God had thus spoken to Moses: “moreover, what is the message of this enigmatic statement, and how was it to comfort a bereaved father?

Rashi answers both questions:

“That is which the Lord spoke: Where had He spoken thus? In the verse “And there I will meet with the children of Israel and it (the Sanctuary) shall be sanctified by My glory” (Ex. 29:43) – read not “by My glory” but “through My honored ones.”

Moses said to Aaron: Aaron, my brother, I knew that this house would be sanctified by those who are cherished by God, and I thought it would be either through me or through you. Now I see that these (two sons) are greater than I and you.”

Following the method of the Midrash, Rashi answers our first question by citing a verse containing a similar idea.

Ibn Ezra comments here as in other instances:

We need not ask where this was said, for many Biblical dialogues remain unrecorded. Thus it is futile to search for the source of “This … the Lord spoke.” This is also Nachmanides’ view in 9:2 and elsewhere.

“And he said to Aaron, Take thee a young calf” (9:2). Moses had been instructed concerning these offerings, as stated later (v. 6), “this is the thing which the Lord commanded you to do,” though this is not mentioned in the Torah. Similar instances are: “This is the thing which the Lord commands: fill an omer of it to be kept (Ex. 16:32) and “I am the God of Bet-El.” (Gen. 31:13, which is reported by Jacob though not written in the Torah. I have also pointed out several instances of this in the passage dealing with the Pesah laws (cf. Ex. 10:2 and 11:1).

Here, however, Nahmanides differs, challenging both Rashi and Ibn Ezra, saying, “That is which the Lord spoke: Where had He spoken thus?” He proceeds to quote Rashi with the following variation “Now I see that these are holierthan I and you” and concludes: “thus Rashi, base on the Midrash.”

Accordingly means that it (the Sanctuary) will be sanctified in the sight of all the people through those who glorify Me, and they will know that I dwell in it. Ibn Ezra likewise says: “This is that which the Lord spoke: i.e. in the past, when God informed me that He would reveal His glory through those that are near unto Him … According to Ibn Ezra this statement was not recorded on the Torah; God explained to Moses His ways, that such is the principle involved. But I think it is uncalled for in the plain sense. Indeed, God’s decrees, thoughts and ways are all termed davar (i.e. word or thing). As in “I spoke, dibarti, to my own heart” (Ecc. 1:16), which means “I thought” or “This is the reason why Joshua circumsized,” (Jos. 5:4) or “Because of the money that was returned in our sacks” (Gen. 43:18); “And let her be your master’s son’s wife as the Lord has spoken” (Gen. 24:51), i.e. Decreed; or “He laid its foundation with Aviram, and set up its gates with his youngest son, Seguv, according to the word of the Lord, which He spoke to Joshua, the son of Nun” (1 Kings 16:34).

Accordingly, Moses said: this has happened because God reached the decision that “By those who are near unto Me will I be sanctified,” i.e. they may not break into My sanctity, “and before all the people I will be glorified,” i.e. they must respect My Sanctuary.

The example from Gen. 24 is most telling: there Rashi, too, does not ask. “where did He say so?” R. Yitzchak Arama, author of Akedat Yitzchak (Section 59) comments similarly:

It is, as we explained, the tragic event itself that constitutes the Divine dibur, whereby He addresses His people and His devout followers.

Let us now analyze the meaning of “that which the Lord spoke,” its immediate as well as its historical relevance.

Yalkut Shimoni offers an illuminating explanation of, “By those who are near unto Me will I be sanctified”:

“Our God comes, and does not keep silence; a fire devours before Him, and it is very `tempestuous round about Him” (Ps. 50:3). A human ruler is feared more by his distant subject than by those close to him. It is not so with God, for those close to Him are more awe-stricken than those far removed, as it is stated: “By those who are near unto Me will I be sanctified.”

N.H Weisel elaborates in his Biur:

In my opinion Moses assured Aaron not to harbor the dreadful thought that God has punished his sons with His consuming fire because they had sinned covertly. On the contrary, they were holy men, close to God, whose downfall was a result of their greatness, for it is God’s way to be sanctified through those near unto Him…God dealt with them sternly for an offence prompted by the love of and yearning for God. Thus, they exemplified the lesson that God is holy and beyond the notions of man. Men tend to spare and favor those near and dear to them, but God pursues the opposite course.

Evidently, a superior status rather than diminishing a person’s liability, imposes additional obligations. Similarly, Moses’ exclusion form the Promised Land, for an apparently minor offence, was the result of his superior standing. The Biur dwells on this point:

A similar fate befell Moses and Aaron who for solitary failing at the waters of Meriva, were punished with death … there the Torah also states, “And he was sanctified by them.” There is an analogy here, seeing that Nadav and Avihu were anointed priests, who strove to sanctify themselves and to master the order of the service, yet they died even before concluding their first assignment. Thus also Moses spared no effort to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land, but died just as they were about to enter it.

The prophets apply this concept of superior responsibility on a national scale and not only to the chosen few.

Amos 3:2 – You only have I known of all the families of the earth, therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.

Your very election as partners in God’s covenant, as the sole transmitters of the religious ideal, has yielded the privilege of “therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” This is in contrast to the misconception of Amos’ contemporaries and that of later generations as well, who thought to base their claim to a privileged position on Divine election. “And before all the people I will be glorified” according to Rashi, is the lesson taught by the severe punishment meted out to the great and honored – “those near unto Me”:

“And before all the people I will be glorified”: When God judges the pious He is venerated, exalted and extolled. IF these are treated thus (people will say) how much more the wicked. This is the meaning of “O God, You are feared out of Your holy places” (Ps. 68:36): read not out of your Sanctuary but of your sanctified ones.

R. Yizhak Arama elaborates:

Blessed be the true and just Judge whose laws and decrees arouse fear and trembling. Seeing that He favors not His sanctified ones, what can be the prospects of us ordinary people? Such was Moses’ message to Aaron when he declared: “this is that which the Lord spoke, saying: By those that are near unto Me will I be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.

Questions for Further Study


1. Rashi here twice resorts to al tikre – whereby the reading of a particular word is changed. In Shnei Luhot haBrit (Shlah) we find the following explanation of this exegetic device:

We find al tikre several times in the Ta. I have learned from my teachers that this method is applied whenever a grave textual problem calls for a different reading of a word, than that in the verse: “And all your children shall be taught of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children: do not read (al tikre) banayikh (your children) but bonayikh (your builders) … here the second “your children ” is superfluous, since great shall be “their peace” would have sufficed. A further example is: “that keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it (meyhaleloi)” – read not meyhalelo, but mahul lo he is forgiven (i.e., for other trespasses). This change was induced by the Shabbat being feminine, this verb should read mehalelah…In some cases, however, al tikre does not deal with a problematic text but merely serves as a mnemotechnic device for preserving a lesson.

What textual problems prompt the al tikre in the verses under consideration?

​2. “And Aaron was silent” (10:3). 

Vayidom Aharon – his heart turned to lifeless stone (domem – mineral), and he did not weep and mourn like a bereaved father, nor did he accept Moses’ consolation for his soul and left him and he was speechless.

R. Eliezer Lipman Lichtenstein – Shem Olam:

Scripture chose vayidom rather than vayishtok, (synonyms of silence). The latter signifies the abstention from speaking, weeping, moaning or any other outward manifestation as “They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man” (Ps. 107:27), followed by, “then are they glad because vayishtoku – they are quiet” (ibid., 30). The verb domem however, connotes inner peace and calm … Accordingly Scripture describes the saintly Aaron as vayidom and not merely as vayishtok, thus emphasizing that his heart and soul were at peace within, that rather than questioning the standards of God, he justified the Divine verdict.

  • Point out the difference between the two explanations.
  • Which view follows the plain meaning and context?
  • Which view is supported by Ps. 37:7 and Lament, 3:28?