Commandment Between Man and G-D, Transgression Between Man and His Fellow

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by R. Eliezer Simcha Weisz

Parashat Bamidbar

Parashat Bamidbar focuses on the role of the Leviim. At the beginning of the parasha, stewards are responsible for transporting the parts of the Mishkan in the desert according to their families. After detailing the various roles of the Leviim, G-D commands Moses and Aaron not to cut off the Kohathite family from among the Leviim: “Do not let the Kohathite Families be cut off from the Leviim” (Numbers 4:18).

What could have caused the Kohathite family to be cut off? The Kohathites were responsible for carrying the sacred objects of the Mishkan, including the  Aron- Ark of the Covenant, which contained the Tablets of the Law. The Midrash provides additional details about the actions of the sons of Kohath during the desert journey. According to the Midrash, the Kohathites preferred carrying the Ark of the Covenant over the other sacred objects of the Mishkan. They exerted themselves and even quarreled among themselves to gain the honor of carrying the Ark of the Covenant. These disputes led to the degradation and disrespect of the other sacred objects, as the Midrash writes:

מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהָיוּ יוֹדְעִים שֶׁכָּל מִי שֶׁטּוֹעֵן בָּאָרוֹן שְׂכָרוֹ מְרֻבֶּה וְהָיוּ מַנִּיחִין אֶת הַשֻּׁלְחָן וְהַמְּנוֹרָה וְהַמִּזְבְּחוֹת וְכֻלָּן רָצִים לָאָרוֹן לִטֹּל שָׂכָר, וּמִתּוֹךְ כָּךְ הָיָה זֶה מֵרִיב וְאוֹמֵר אֲנִי טוֹעֵן כָּאן, וְזֶה מֵרִיב וְאוֹמֵר אֲנִי טוֹעֵן כָּאן, וּמִתּוֹךְ כָּךְ הָיוּ נוֹהֲגִין בְּקַלּוּת רֹאשׁ וְהָיְתָה הַשְּׁכִינָה פּוֹגַעַת בָּהֶם, אָמַר הָאֱלֹקים לְמשֶׁה עֲשֵׂה לָהֶם תַּקָנָה כְּדֵי שֶׁלֹא יִתְכַּלּוּ מִן הָעוֹלָם, אַל תַּכְרִיתוּ וגו’, אֶלָּא יְסַדְּרוּ אוֹתָם עַל עֲבוֹדָתָם וְעַל מַשָֹּׂאָם שֶׁלֹא יָרִיבוּ זֶה עִם זֶה, עָשָׂה לָהֶם משֶׁה תַּקָּנָה, אֶלָּא שֶׁהָיוּ מְרִיבִין זֶה כְּנֶגֶד זֶה, זֶה אוֹמֵר אֲנִי טוֹעֵן בָּאָרוֹן וְזֶה אוֹמֵר לָאו אֶלָּא אֲנִי טוֹעֵן, וְלֹא הָיָה יוֹדֵעַ אֶחָד מַהוּ קָבוּעַ לוֹ, מַהוּ מַשָֹּׂאוֹ, אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא וְהָיוּ אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו נִכְנָסִין וְנוֹתְנִים לְכָל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד טְעוּנוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו יָבֹאוּ וְשָׂמוּ אוֹתָם וגו’. (במדבר רבה ה:א)

“Because they knew that whoever carried the Ark would receive a greater reward, they would abandon the Table, the Menorah, and the Altars, and they all ran to the Ark to gain the reward. Consequently, one would quarrel and say, ‘I am carrying here,’ and another would quarrel and say, ‘I am carrying here.’ As a result, they acted frivolously, and the Divine Presence would strike them. G-D said to Moses, ‘Make a provision for them so that they do not perish from the world. Do not let the Kohathite tribal clans be cut off, but rather organize them according to their tasks and their burdens, so they do not quarrel with each other.’ Moses made a provision for them, yet they continued to quarrel with each other. One said, ‘I am carrying the Ark,’ and another said, ‘No, I am carrying it.’ No one knew his designated task or burden. Therefore, Aaron and his sons would enter and assign each one his burden, as it says: ‘Aaron and his sons shall come and assign each of them to his task and his burden’ (Numbers 4:19).” (Bamidbar Rabbah 5:1)

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, in his book “Mesilat Yesharim” (The Path of the Just), addresses the importance of understanding the consequences of our actions, particularly when performing mitzvot (commandments). He gives an example of pursuing a mitzvah that causes a quarrel, writing:

פשוט הוא שראוי לכל אדם להיות מקדים ורץ לדבר מצווה ולהשתדל להיות מן העוסקים בה, אך הנה לפעמים יכולה להיוולד מזה מריבה, שיותר תתבזה המצווה ויתחלל בה שם שמים ממה שיתכבד, בכיוצא בזה וודאי שחייב החסיד להניח את המצווה ולא לרדוף אחריה. וכן אמרו ז”ל בעניין הלוויים: מפני שהיו יודעים שכל מי שטוען בארון שכרו מרובה, והיו מניחין את השולחן והמנורה והמזבחות, וכולן רצים לארון ליטול שכר, ומתוך כך היה זה מריב ואומר: אני טוען כאן, וזה מריב ואומר: אני טוען כאן, ומתוך כך היו נוהגין קלות ראש, והייתה השכינה פוגעת בהם וכו’. (מסילת ישרים כ׳:ט״ז)

“It is evident that one should strive to be among those who engage in performing a mitzvah, but sometimes this pursuit can lead to quarrels, where the mitzvah is desecrated and G-D’s name is profaned more than it is honored. In such cases, it is certain that the pious person must forgo the mitzvah and not pursue it. The Sages said regarding the Leviim: Because they knew that whoever carried the Ark would receive a greater reward, they would abandon the Table, the Menorah, and the Altars, and they all ran to the Ark to gain the reward. Consequently, one would quarrel and say, ‘I am carrying here,’ and another would quarrel and say, ‘I am carrying here.’ As a result, they acted frivolously, and the Divine Presence would strike them, etc.” (Mesilat Yesharim 20:16)

Often, we cause disputes in the pursuit of a mitzvah. For example, some fight to receive honors such as leading prayers, disregarding the obligations of others, which results in the mitzvah not being properly fulfilled. If you do one thing at the expense of another, where performing the first action harms the second, we must always examine our actions and their consequences.

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the Musar movement, expounded this concept as “a commandment between man and G-D that results in a transgression between man and his fellow.” “מצווה בין אדם למקום, הבאה בעבירה בין אדם לחבירו” That is, the meticulous observance of a commandment between man and G-D that causes harm to others. He pointed out that sometimes people who are devout and enthusiastic about fulfilling a specific mitzvah can harm others in the process. For example, waking up early for Selichot prayers during the month of Elul and the Ten Days of Repentance might cause significant discomfort to the family members of the person waking up early, leading to various problems. Another example is someone preoccupied with their spiritual-religious state, who might fail in their interpersonal relationships, leading to unjustified anger and impatience with others.

The Torah warns regarding the family of Kohath, teaching us to apply this lesson to our lives. We must understand the consequences of our actions. Sometimes, attempting to fulfill a mitzvah can lead to harm to other important values such as respect for others and unity. The central message is that we must act wisely and considerately, seeing the full picture when fulfilling mitzvot. We should not assume that every act done for the sake of heaven is necessarily appropriate and correct. We must always strive to perform mitzvot with an awareness of the broader context and not at the expense of others, avoiding situations where fulfilling a mitzvah might cause more harm than benefit and be “a commandment between man and G-D that results in a transgression between man and his fellow.”

About Eliezer Simcha Weisz

Rabbi Eliezer Simcha Weisz is a member of The Chief Rabbinate Council of Israel

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