Parashat Shemini begins with the consecration of the Mishkan and its preparation for the Shechina’s imminent residence. The Pasuk states, “VayHi BaYom HaShemini Kara Moshe LeAharon U’LVanav U’LZiknei Yisael,” "It was on the eighth day, Moshe called Aharon, his sons, and all the elders of Israel." (9:1) It makes sense that Moshe called Aharon, as he was chosen as Kohein Gadol and to Aharon’s sons, as they were to serve as Kohanim. But why did Moshe make a point of speaking to the elders, as well? Previously, when Moshe first assumed the task of securing the release of Bnei Yisrael from Egypt, he assembled the elders, performed miracles before them, and informed them of the imminent redemption. At Har Sinai, as well, the elders were given the special distinction of a special place closer to the mountain during Matan Torah. Why do the Zekeinim receive this special treatment?
In support of the distinguished position of the elders, the Midrash quotes Rabi Akiva who notes that the Jewish people are compared to a bird. Just as a bird cannot fly without wings, so too, the Jewish people cannot exist without their elders. Therefore, the Zekeinim deserve a unique place in Jewish society for their critical role. However, this Midrash seems to be a bit puzzling. Why is it that the elders are so fundamental and crucial for Klal Yisrael to “fly”?
In trying to understand this peculiarity, it is important to note another event that transpires in this week’s Parashah. At the height of the joy of the dedication of the Mishkan, two of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, are consumed by a fire from Hashem for their kindling a “foreign fire” in the Mishkan. The Gemara (Eruvin 63a) offers many interpretations of the Chachamim regarding exactly what Nadav and Avihu did to warrant this terrible punishment. One opinion states that Nadav and Avihu issued their own ruling before their teacher, Moshe, and were consumed for this deed. But this Gemara also seems to be a bit puzzling. What is so severe about rendering a Halachic ruling in the presence of one’s teacher, in this case, Moshe Rabbeinu?
Perhaps we can understand this apparently confusing issue based on an explanation by a Rosh HaYeshiva at Yeshiva University, Rav Michael Rosensweig. Rav Rosensweig explains that Halachah mandates that the Jewish people maximize their connection to the experience of Revelation and intensify their commitment to the content of Revelation by means of rigorous Torah study and meticulous Torah observance. Essentially, Torah life constitutes a Divine gift to the Jewish people, a cherished opportunity, the gateway to a spiritually rich and meaningful existence (see Mishnah, Makkot 23b and Kohelet 12:13.)
I believe that it is this core concept that answers the two questions posed on this week’s Parashah. The reason why the elders are considered to be the “wings” of Klal Yisrael is because the Zekeinim are ultimately responsible for paving this “gateway to a spiritually rich and cherished existence.” The elders serve as the connection to the past, bear the incredible responsibility of transmitting the Mesorah (tradition) for the future, and possess the wisdom required in order to properly transmit the traditions from generation to generation.
Based on this logic, we can perhaps also comprehend why it was so severe for Nadav and Avihu to render a Halachic decision before Moshe Rabeinu. By doing so, they were undermining the purpose of Mesorah. Mesorah represents a Rav’s responsibility to teach his students; in order for this Mesorah to be transmitted appropriately, the students must come to have a respect of the teacher and his wisdom. The inability to grasp this pivotal role of the Rebbe—and therefore fail to enable the Mesorah to be transmitted—was the fatal flaw of Nadav and Avihu.
As we leave the days of Pesach and look towards the receiving of the Torah on Shavuot, it is imperative for all of us to contemplate the incredible responsibility that each and every one of us bears: the opportunity we have to transmit the Mesorah to the next generation is a responsibility that truly speaks to who we are, and what we are supposed to represent. May we all continue to execute Hashem’s will faithfully and continue to raise a generation of Yir’ei Shamayim (God-fearing Jews) who remain on the Hashem’s path.