Parshat Shemini drops us into the narrative at the end of the Mishkan preparations. The structure has been built, its vessels and utensils fashioned, its agents designated, their clothes crafted. In Parshat Tzav, Moshe led Aaron in his sons in preparation for the Mishkan sacrifices and rights. For seven days they practice and on the eighth day, Moshe passes the mantle to Aaron. The entire nation sits in apprehension. Despite Moshe’s assurances, they are nervous – during the seven days that Moshe offered the sacrifice, Hashem offered no sign; they watch with anxiety as Moshe dismantles and reassembles the Mishkan each day.1 They are not waiting for proof of Hashem’s existence as many might be today. They know that He exists – they’ve witnessed His might and been saved by His miracles. Rather, they are awaiting a sign that they are still His people. By many opinions, this event happens after the sin of the Golden Calf. Am Yisrael is waiting for a sign that they have not lost their special relationship with Him. Rashi tells us that even Aaron is afraid to approach the altar when Moshe calls him. Moshe says to him, “why are you embarrassed? This is for what you were chosen.”2 Aaron approaches and first sanctifies himself with a sin offering. Next, with the assistance of his sons, Aaron offers a sin offering to atone for Am Yisrael. Nothing happens. Moshe and Aaron go into the Tent and begin to pray. Only when they leave the tent and bless the nation does a great fire come from before Hashem and consume their sacrifices. It’s the long-awaited moment. “And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces.”3
It is striking that Aaron and his sons practiced in preparation for this event. What can “practice” mean in terms of service to Hashem? Surely Hashem was no less present during the first week of “practicing” than he was on the actual day of inauguration? Although no fire descended to consume the sacrifices, was their devotion less noted, their actions less important? No, rather, they were practicing for when Hashem would reveal His presence. This speaks to a reality that we all encounter in our service to Hashem, in our striving to connect with something deeper, something beyond ourselves: Sometimes we feel it and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we are filled with light and feel as though our hearts are bursting with joy and clarity. Other times, we feel lost in darkness, the rigid lines of ourselves blocking out any connection to or sense of Oneness.
What do we do in those moments? We practice. Practicing is doing the same activity again and again as if it were the moment. The saying goes, “you play as you practice.” So often though, we treat the two differently – only when the pressure is actually on and we feel the realness of the situation in which we are standing, do we approach with intensity and commitment. When we feel like no one is watching, we act like it. It comes down to a mental state. Do you believe that what you are doing now, even though it might not feel “real,” matters? Our imagination becomes a powerful tool for transforming these moments. That it doesn’t feel real now does not change the Truth. To realize that something is true even when it does not feel true is a higher level of consciousness, a recognition that truth is something that exists outside of us, beyond our limited attempts to grasp it.
This is the idea of a Gd-consciousness. So often we act and speak differently in Shul than we do outside of it. So often we act like there’s a Gd only when we don tefillin and step into the Amidah. Aaron and his sons remind us that, in truth, our actions should be no difference between any of these situations. Although no fire came down to consume the sacrifices during the first seven days, Hashem was no less present at their performance. Although we might not always feel Hashem’s presence during our day-to-day lives He is no less there. It is written in the Gemara, “Rabbi Yoḥanan says in the name of Rabbi Yosei ben Zimra: Anyone who speaks malicious speech is considered as though he denied the fundamental belief in Gd.”4 Why is that? In the Sefer Yereim, it is written that before a gossiper speaks, they look around to make sure that the victim of their words is not present. Implicit in their words then is the belief that the One Who Always Hears is not present. Thus, Rabbi Yohanan says in the name of Rabbi Yosei ben Zimra that lashon hara (gossip and harmful speech) is akin to a denial of Gd.
Even when we don’t feel Hashem’s presence, we must remember that He is there. It is often enough to say, “I know Hashem is there but I do not feel it. How would I act if I felt Hashem’s presence right now?” This extends not only to our service to Hashem but to our interactions with other human beings as well. Do we treat our loved ones differently when we are overwhelmed with love and empathy than when we are stressed and tired? Is our love for them any less real in either of those moments? Is our respect for our parents or teachers any less present when we are aggrieved or irritable? We must hold a memory of Truth at all times, even when we do not feel it, and we must align our actions with this understanding. A day will come again when Truth is as clear to us as day and all that we have done in darkness will be revealed.
This can feel challenging at times. It is a slow and fundamental eradication of what “you” want to do in each moment: how you want to eat, how you want to speak. What is important to understand is that this “you” that drives so much of your momentary reactions and desires is a simple construction of beliefs, programming, expectations, and habits. For as long as we resist approaching every moment of life with a higher level of awareness, we are slaves to our “you’s.” Living in relationship to Hashem in every action is our purpose. Living with an awareness of Truth, even if not fully felt, is our goal. When we do this we feel filled with purpose. It is akin to the newfound joy that a recently married couple might find when preparing breakfast. Before, the question was simply: what do “I” want to eat? Now, the question is, how can I bring joy and connection to this other person through this act of making breakfast? The joy of eating exactly what you want pales in comparison to the love and intimacy these acts of commitment to a relationship bring. This can feel challenging to the “self.” So many relationships dissolve because living in a relationship with another means less room for me. What is miraculous is that although this is confronting to the ego, surrendering what we want at the moment to something higher brings so much more joy. When we consciously seek Hashem’s presence in each and every moment of our lives, He makes His presence known and felt. When we make room for Hashem in ourselves by reducing our egos, He reveals His holy fire.
Prayer is not three moments of connection with Hashem during the day. Prayer is the three moments of pinnacle connection. It is an intimate time standing above the thousands of shared seconds throughout the day.
How do we practice? We must simply watch our resistance and choose to transcend it. We must observe how our lower-level consciousness fights momentarily – “I want to finish this barucha as quickly as I can; I don’t want to sit and consciously eat my food; I feel anger at this person and feel justified in a sharp response.” As Rav Dessler discusses in his discourse on free will, these are our bechira points (our free will decision points).5 It is in these very moments of resistance that we have the opportunity to transcend one step higher. Most of these points occur in darkness, those times when we feel no one is watching. We should not be discouraged even if all of our previous decisions and actions did not reflect our deeper understanding of truth. Each decision stands as a unique point in time and it has unimaginable power to change us and the world. Eli Weisel, in his book, Souls on Fire, writes that what the Ba’al Shem Tov tried to inspire was an awareness that “every woodcutter may be a prophet in disguise, every shoemaker a Just Man, every unknown the Baal Shem.”6
May we all merit to treat everyone as if our whole love and compassion for them were revealed in that very moment. May we speak as though they about whom we are speaking is listening. May we act, think, move, and love each moment as though He is watching. May we all merit to see the truth hidden behind the facade of ourselves and this world.
- Rashi: Vayikra: 9:23
- Rashi: Vayikra: 9:7
- Rashi Vayikra 9:7
- Arakhin: 15b
- Rav Dessler: Strive for Truth – Michtav Me-Eliyahu translated by Aryeh Carmell
- Eli Weisel: Souls on Fire