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The Two Stages of Divine Service

Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

In the Torah's account of the Tribe of Levi it reviews the tragic deaths of Aaron's righteous sons, Nadav and Avihu. On this occasion it adds a hitherto unmentioned detail - that they died without any sons.(1) The Gemara extrapolates from here that had they had sons then they would not have died.(2) The Chatam Sofer explains that Nadav and Avihu had reached such a high level of closeness to God that they had fulfilled their potential, and there was no further need for them to live in this world. However, had they had children then they would have been needed to stay alive in order to bring them up and provide for their needs.

We learn from here that even if a person reaches total perfection in his own personal Divine Service, he is nevertheless kept alive so that he can benefit his children. Moreover, it seems from the principle of the Chatam Sofer that there are two levels in Divine Service - the first is a person's development of his Torah, traits and relationships to God, and the second, his responsibility to his children. The Chatam Sofer(3) adds that a great tzaddik (righteous man) can be kept alive in order to guide his students as well as his children, implying that a person's second stage of Divine Service is not limited to helping his children, but also his students.(4)

We find an example of the dualistic nature of Divine Service in the portion of Vayishlach. After Jacob emerged from the tremendous challenges of living with Laban and facing his hostile brother Esau, the Torah describes him as being 'shalem,' complete - the Rabbinical sources understand this to mean that he was spiritually complete; he had withstood the spiritual threats of Laban and Esau and emerged totally pure of any lacking. Yet, the rest of his life was plagued by the difficulties he endured as a result of the mistakes and shortcomings of people around him - his daughter's lack of modesty in going out(5) resulted in her abduction by Shechem and its eventual destruction by Simeon and Levi. This was followed by the incident with Reuben moving Bilhah's bed,(6) and the sale of Joseph. It is striking that after emphasizing Jacob's individual greatness, it then outlines in great depth the imperfections of the world around him. This shows us that while he had completed his own personal mission, he remained on this world in order to rectify the lacking of those around him.(7)

Many great leaders spent a great portion of their lives focused largely on their own personal mission, but when the time was right, they devoted great amount of energy into serving the Jewish people. Rav Shach is a perfect example of this, he learnt continuously for many years but when he emerged as a Gadol (great Torah leader) he totally devoted himself to the Jewish people, and never turned away people in need of his help.

The two forms of Divine Service also require two different attitudes and approaches; this is demonstrated in the creation of mankind. While all the animals were created in one Divine statement, man and woman were created in two separate statements; Rav Yitzchak Berkovits explains that each statement represented a new stage in creation. The statement creating man represented the aspect of man's Avoda as an individual and his relationship with himself. The statement creating woman led to a new stage of creation known as society, whereby man has to interact with those around him.

These two stages require very different mindsets - with regard to his attitude towards himself, man has to apply a certain degree of strictness on himself, involving self-analysis an striving to improve oneself. When he endures suffering he should stress the need to trust in God and to strive to improve his ways. In contrast, man must have a very different view towards other people - when someone else suffers, he must not tell them that it is all from God and that they should strive to grow, rather he should focus on caring for them and acting as if they are not being looked after by anyone, including God.

Great Torah leaders also demonstrated a dualistic attitude in their lives - to themselves they were demanding and self-critical, hiding from honor and refusing help from other people, but to their fellow man, they were kind, caring, tolerant, and full of praise. Nadav and Avihu never had the responsibility of guiding others, and therefore their Avoda was limited to self-perfection. May all of us merit to perfect ourselves in both levels of Divine Service - perfecting ourselves and the world around us.



1. Bamidbar, 3:4.

2. Yevamos, 64a.

3. The 'pituchey chotam' was written by the Chatam Sofer's grandson, but it was based on the teachings he learnt from his grandfather.

4. This concept is supported two verses earlier where the Torah describes Moses' students as his children. Rashi explains that because he taught them it is considered as if he gave birth to them. Thus, just as a person has an responsible to guide his physical children, he must do the same for his spiritual 'children'. It seems clear that Nadav and Avihu did not have any students who perhaps could have been cause for their lives to be prolonged.

5. As always, we must realize that the Torah is talking to us on a level that we can understand - it focuses in on Deena's lacking in modesty to teach us a lesson, but in truth, her lacking in that area would be largely discernible to us.

6. See Parshat Vayishlach for the Torah's account of that incident.


7. Heard from Rav Efraim Kramer.

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