Moses’ Seven Days at the Kohen Gadol
Shmini (Leviticus 9-11 )
Vayikra, 9:1: “And it was on the eighth day, Moshe called to Aaron and his son and the Elders of Israel”.
Baal HaTurim, Vayikra, 9:1 “Hashmini karah Moshe (on the eighth, Moshe called) is the gematria (numerical value) of hayah beyom Rosh Chodesh Nissan (it was on the day of Rosh Chodesh Nissan): Moshe said, ‘because I refused [to lead the Jewish people] for seven days at the burning bush, I only merited to serve seven days’.”
The Torah Portion begins on the eighth day of the inauguration of the Tabernacle (Mishkan) and tells us that Moses called Aaron to instruct him in the Service of the Kohen Gadol. The Sages teach us that this was on Rosh Chodesh Nissan, and on the seven previous days, Moshe had served in the role of Kohen Gadol. The Gemara1 tells us that Moshe should have been the Kohen Gadol, but after he persistently refused God’s entreaties at the burning bush to lead the Jewish people, he lost that position to his brother Aaron. However, Moshe did serve as Kohen Gadol for the first seven days before Rosh Chodesh Nissan. The Baal HaTurim cites two matching gematrias that allude to this fact, and explains, based on the Midrash2 that the seven days that Moshe refused God’s instructions, correspond to the seven days that he served as Kohen Gadol.
It is evident that the Baal HaTurim understands that because Moshe refused God for seven days, therefore he was Kohen Gadol for seven days. This seems counterintuitive: We know that Moshe lost the right to the Priesthood (Kehuna) because of his refusal, but the fact that he did at least serve as Kohen Gadol for seven days appears to be a reward, not a punishment. Why then, according to the Baal HaTurim, is the seven days that Moshe served as Kohen Gadol considered a punishment?3
Rabbi Isaac Bernstein offers a fascinating answer to this question4, based on his understanding of the commentary of the Medrash Shmuel on Pirkei Avot. The Mishna teaches that jealousy, lustfulness, and honor take a person out of the world5. The simple understanding of this is that these traits are so damaging that they can cause a person to stumble in sins to the extent that he loses his portion in Olam Habah (the Next World). The Medrash Shmuel asks, if this is the correct interpretation, then the Mishna should be worded differently: It should say, “One who is jealous, lustful, or has desire for honor has no portion in Olam habah”, which is a commonly used expression. The implication of the language that these bad traits ‘take a person out of the world’, implies that such a person has entered Olam HaBah and then he is taken out of it.
The Medrash Shmuel therefore offers a very novel interpretation: The punishment of a person who has jealousy, lustfulness, or desire for honor does in fact involve the loss of his portion of Olam HaBah. However, the punishment is administered by first placing him in Olam HaBah, thereby giving him a brief opportunity to experience it and see what he will be missing, and then taking him out from there!
This actually exacerbates the suffering of the person: Someone who loses Olam HaBah without ever having tasted it does not suffer as much as someone who experiences its incredible pleasure for a short time, and then is suddenly pulled out of it. Hence, it is even worse for someone to be placed in Olam Habah and then taken out, then to never experience it at all.
Rabbi Bernstein suggests that this is the way to reconcile the fact that Moshe was given the opportunity to serve for a week as Kohen Gadol with the Baal HaTurim’s explanation that this was a punishment. He experienced the privilege of the Kehuna for the same amount of time that he argued with God, as a punishment that when it was taken away from him, he would feel the loss even more, than if he had never experienced it.
This idea affects everyone – a person certainly feels the loss of various things greater than had he never experienced them in the first place. It is also true that while he does have those things, there is the tendency to take them for granted. One lesson we can take from here, is that at least during the time that one does have those things, whether they be in the realm of family, health, money or anything else, to try to not take them for granted and appreciate them.
1. Zevachim, 102a.
2. Vayikra Rabbah, 11:6.
3. It is possible to explain the Midrash differently from the Baal HaTurim: That Moshe was not punished for refusing God for seven days, rather he was punished for saying on the seventh day, ‘send who you will send’. That was the conclusive act of refusal, and at that time, he lost the Kehunah. According to this understanding, he was intended to be Kohen Gadol forever, and was Kohen Gadol, until the seventh day, corresponding to fact that he finally refused HaShem on the seventh day (heard from Rabbi Binyamin Rubin.
4. Heard in the name of Rabbi Yissachar Frand.
5. Pirkei Avot, 4:27.