Parashat Shemini

The Role Of The Elders

Several commentators discuss the relationship of the elders to the priests, the people, Moses, and God.

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Provided by the Orthodox Union, the central coordinating agency for North American Orthodox congregations.

The great day has finally arrived! All that preceded this day--the Exodus from Egypt, the Revelation at Sinai, and the building and dedication of the Mishkan (Tabernacle)--was a process designed to bring Hashem’s uninterrupted Presence into the camp of Israel. The shameful sin of the golden calf nearly brought about the destruction of the people of Israel.

However, after much painful soul-searching, Hashem and His people are reconciled. For seven days, Aaron and his sons have trained to serve as the Kohanim (priests); now, on the eighth day, nearly one year since the Exodus on the first of the month of Nisan, the moment of Divine union is here:

1) And it was on the eighth day that Moses called for Aaron and for his sons and for the elders of Israel.

2) And he said to Aaron: Take for yourself a young calf for a sin-offering, and a ram for an elevation-offering, complete without blemish, and offer them before Hashem.

3) And to the Children of Israel you shall speak, saying: Take a he-goat for a sin-offering and a calf and a sheep in their first year, complete without blemish, for an elevation-offering,

4) And an ox and a ram for a peace-offering to sacrifice before Hashem, and a meal-offering mixed with oil; for today Hashem appears to you.

5) And they took that which Moses had commanded before the Tent of Meeting, and the whole congregation drew near and they stood before Hashem.

6) And Moses said, “This is the thing that Hashem has commanded you to do, and the glory of Hashem will appear to you” (Vayikra, chapter 9).

Why Call the Elders?

Why does Moses call the elders of Israel? What is their place in the initiation of the Kohanim?

Rashi says that Moses summons the elders so that they can hear for themselves that Hashem wants Aaron to serve as kohen gadol (high priest). In this way, they cannot claim that he is usurping his position. Rashi considers the elders’ role as evidential, not functional.

Haamek Davar (R. Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, 1817-1893) agrees that the elders are not part of the investiture of the Kohanim. Rather, he says, quoting Torat Kohanim (also known as Sifra, the Jewish legal midrash on Vayikra) and other midrashim, the elders are called only to accord them honor. Not all the elders are summoned, but only the greatest among them; their students are not included since, as we learn in Tractate Bava Batra 130b, we do not honor students when their teachers are being honored. 

Ramban (Nahmanides), on the other hand, sees the role of the elders as an integral part of the installation of the kohanim (priests). He suggests two possible readings of these verses: 

In verses 2-4, Moses speaks to Aaron, commanding his brother to bring his own offering and then to be the one to command the Children of Israel to bring their offerings. This procedure will elevate Aaron in the eyes of the people. The elders are to stand together with Aaron.

Moses speaks to Aaron in verse 2 only, telling him to bring his own offerings. Then Moses speaks to the elders in verses 3-4, commanding each of them to instruct the people regarding their offerings.

In both of these readings, the elders are part of the chain of authority that consecrates the kohanim. However, while in the first reading, the elders form part of Aaron’s authority, in the second reading the authority of the elders derives from and is an extension of Moses’s. In other words, the elders may be regarded either as part of the institution of the priesthood or of the institution of Torah-teaching. In both readings, the elders are indispensable to the initiation of the kohanim.
 

(It is interesting to note that although the sons of Aaron are summoned, they are not addressed directly, because their function is completely subordinate to Aaron’s. This foreshadows the later actions of Nadav and Avihu, who, in offering strange fire before Hashem (10:1), try to set themselves up as an independent authority.)

After the people obey these commands, Moses reminds them, 
 

This is the thing that Hashem has commanded you to do, and the glory of Hashem will appear to you (9:6).

Ultimate authority derives from Hashem.

The people’s sacrifices mentioned in verses 3-4 are not part of the offerings described for the seven days of training and inauguration (Shemot 29). Rather, says Ramban, in addition to serving as a means of dedication, the purpose of the sacrifices on this eighth day may be to atone for the sin of the golden calf. Indeed, these offerings are similar to those brought on Yom Kippur (16:3). Also, the people’s offering of a he-goat for a sin-offering atones for the sin of the selling of Joseph. 

A fourth view of the role of the elders may be found in Vayikra Rabbah (11:8): Rabbi Akiva says that the people of Israel need their elders just as birds need wings. In this simile, the elders enable the people to ascend, even as the Divine Presence descends towards them. In addition, the elders protect the people from the intensity of their ascent.

Revelation as a Wedding

The day of the Revelation is compared to a wedding (end of Tractate Ta’anit; Torat Kohanim 7:16). The joy of that day, like the union of bride and groom, was kept within, and mixed with anxiety. Now, with the union of the shechinah (divine presence) with the people of Israel, that joy can be expressed fully and openly. The kohanim make that union possible. And the elders of Israel, who support the kohanim with testimony and the chain of Torah authority, and the people with inspiration and protection, provide a crucial, honorable link in that union.

Then, as now, the people of Israel depend upon their Torah sages to join with Hashem in joyous unity.

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Rabbi Avraham Fischer

Avraham Fischer is a rabbi at Darche Noam Institutions.