Insights in Rashi– The Battle with the ‘Old, Stupid King'
Tzav (Leviticus 6-8 )
Vayikra, 6:2: “Command Aaron and his sons, saying; This is the law of the elevation offering…
Rashi, Vayikra, 62: sv. Command Aaron: “[The word] Command (tzav) only implies the language of zealousness (zrizus), for now and all generations. Rebbe Shimon says the verse needed to encourage zealousness in a situation where there is monetary loss.”
When describing the various Sacrifices,the Torah normally begins with God instructing Moshe to ‘tell’ the Kohanim (Priests) how to proceed. However, with regard to the first Sacrifice in this week’s Torah Portion, the Korban Olah (Elevation Offering) God tells Moshe to ‘command’ the Kohanim. Rashi explains that the word for command implies an extra level of encouragment, meaning that it was necessary to instruct the Kohanim in a stronger language than normal. Rashi then quotes Rebbe Shimon who elaborates on the need for the extra level of encouragement for this Sacrifice in particular: It involves monetary loss for the Kohanim unlike the other Sacrifice – therefore there was more of a fear that they would be lax in their service of this Sacrifice.1
In his discussion of this idea, the Yalkut Maamarim2 writes that there are two general categories of Mitzvot for which the challenge to the negative inclinations are very different. He explains that one category includes Mitzvot for which there is some kind of tangible physical benefit or enjoyment for the person performing the Mitzva. For example, the Mitzvot of eating the Paschal Lamb, deriving enjoyment on Shabbat, eating on Erev Yom Kippur, and so on. For these kinds of Mitzvot, there is little concern that the person will be lax in their performance since he benefits from them in an obvious way.
The test in these Mitzvos concerns the intent of the person in his performance of the Mtizva – is he doing it for the sake of physical pleasure, or for the sake of Heaven. For example, the Gemara describes two people both performing the identical Mitzva of eating the Paschal Lamb, but with different intentions – one is doing it with pure motivation and the other is doing it for the enjoyment of the food. The one with pure intent is described with a verse invoking a righteous perons, and the other is described with the same verse that calls him a sinner.3 In all these Mitzvot, the deciding factor that determines the value of the Mitzva is not the action but the intent: It is easy for a person to act with alacrity to eat good food on Shabbat, but the test is to focus on the spiritual aspect of this act.
The second type of Mitzva is where there is no physical benefit or enjoyment at all. In this kind of Mitzva the primary challenge is not about having the correct intentions when performing the Mitzva because the only reason one would do such a Mitzva would be because God commanded it. For example, the Mitzva of Tefillin involves no physical pleasure and the only reason to put on Tefillin is because they constitute a Mitzva.4 In these kinds of Mitzvot, the main challenge is to actually motivate oneself to perform the Mitzva at all and in the required way. The main negative inclination at work here is not that of having the wrong intentions, but of laziness. Therefore, a person needs to motivate himself in order to overcome his natural inclination for comfort. Returning to the Kohen’s Mitzva of offering the Elevation Offering, the challenge is even greater, as not only there is no benefit but there is even monetary loss involved. Hence, in this Mitzva in particular, the Torah stressed the need for alacrity.
The following story demonstrates one of the main tactics of the negative inclination to prevent a person from overcoming his desire for comfort and how to respond to that tactic. It focuses on one of the main areas where alacrity is required – waking up in the morning. Rav Dovid Povarsky, Rosh Yeshiva of Ponevezh Yeshiva for over 50 years, used to get up every day at 3.00am and walk over to the Ponevezh Yeshiva where would learn Torah until the morning prayer. He never diverted from this routine, even when the weather was extreme or he was not feeling well. As he aged and he had slipped and fallen twice, his family arranged for two of his best students to escort him. Once, during a very stormy, windy dawn, while walking to the Yeshiva, Rav Povarsky remarked to them that a special guest had come to him that morning: Der Alter – ‘the old one’. Since the title, Alter was generally used to describe the great teachers of Mussar (personal growth), the students assumed that one of those Sages must have appeared to the Rosh Yeshivah in his dreams. When they asked him who was this ‘Alter’ – the Alter of Kelm or the Alter of Slobodka5 – he replied that it was neither of them – “The Alter who visited me this morning was very old, I would even venture to say ancient: one who is thousands of years old, and whom the Sages have called ‘an old, stupid king’ the negative inclination himself”.
He explained further, “Although he is described as stupid, the negative inclination’s early morning proposal seemed quite smart…He suggested that I stay in bed just five additional minutes, basing his proposal on a sound, logical premise: The entire world is now enjoying a sweet, relaxing sleep. Wouldn’t it pay to invest just five minutes to satisfy the Sages’ recommendation; ‘Never detach yourself from the public’. “I will confess to you that his reasoning was quite compelling, and I actually began to consider his proposal in earnest. Whilst I was contemplating the idea, the Alter again approached me. Using the same reasoning, he recommended that it might be more appropriate to remain in bed for not just five minutes, but for then, perhaps fifteen minutes, with an open-ended option for an extension. I immediately jumped out of bed with alacrity so as not to fall into his trap.” Turning to his students, he continued in a somber tone with wise advice as how to overcome the negative inclination’s attempts to prevent a Jew from serving God when it is difficult: “Throughout life a person is confronted with an ongoing battle with the Alter. The challenge is to succeed in the first five minutes. The victors are termed by the Sages as ‘giburei koach’ – those of extreme strength. Those who succumb during the critical first five minutes lose the battle.”6
As is well-known, the trait of alacrity is highly relevant to Pesach – the Matzo that we eat symbolizes the fact that the Jews did not tarry an extra second when they were baking their bread as they were leaving Egypt. Indeed, had they delayed at all, the Sages tell us that would not have been able to be redeemed. Thus, Pesach is a time that is apt to work on this trait – may we all merit to emulate Rav Povarsky in overcoming the ‘old, stupid king’ and his ultimately foolish advice.
- There are a number of approaches among the commentators as to what this monetary loss refers to – the Maharal explains that in order to perform the sacrificial service, the Kohanim must give up their regular means of earning a livelihood. This financial sacrifice is particularly pronounced with regard to the Korban Olah, because the Kohanim do not eat any of the meat from that offering, which is not the case with the other Sacrifices. See also Ramban and Ohr HaChaim.
- Quoted in Lekach Tov, Vayikra, pp.41-42.
- Nazir, 23a.
- There is of course an additional reason as to why a person may perform a Mitzva such as Tefillin – habit.
- Two venerated figures who were known by the term ‘Alter’.
- Noble Lives, Noble Deeds, pp.21-23.