Passively Imitating God and Perpetual Change: Sfat Emet on Aharon

mascettiBy Yaakov Mascetti*

Aharon represents, throughout his life, a character which tendentially is passive, quiet, and follows the instructions provided to him from above. The Mishna in Messechet Avot famously defines Aharon’s nature as that of a man who loves peace and pursues peaceful solutions, one who loves all creatures and endeavors to bring them closer to the Torah. To this starkly positive and proactive character, one could certainly also add that Aharon is fundamentally passive – when the people of Israel ask him to make a physical divinity, as they are terrorized by Moses’ disappearance on Mount Sinai, he complies and makes the Golden Calf. When Miriam protests, at the end of parashat Beha’alotcha, regarding Moses’ detachment from the everyday reality of his family and of the people, Aharon is merely an accompanying voice. And when God kills Nadav and Avihu for having lit an “unrequested” fire, Aharon is silent, a silence which is filled with anger and sorry, but silence nonetheless. Aharon is therefore a man who, in his sacerdotal duty, passively performs the duties of the collective – Aharon is the man who spoke for Moses in front of Pharaoh, providing the means for the elocution of words which his brother could not pronounce. Aharon is a container, the exact opposite of that which the poet John Donne in the English seventeenth century would call an “impotent receiver,” a combination of passiveness and active potency, a receptacle which does things.

“The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him, ‘When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand.’ Aaron did so; he mounted the lamps at the front of the lampstand, as the LORD had commanded Moses.” (Num. 8: 1-3).

God speaks to Aharon through Moses – and the content of the message is to light the candles of the Menorah at the front of the lampstand: apparently a rather straightforward situation. Yet, to Rashi it appears like the confirmation of a fundamental virtue of Aharon – that of being able to carry out things with imitative precision. “This comes as a praise of Aharon, who did not change [the Divine commandment as he carried it out].” In the words of the Sfat Emet, who bases his interpretation on Rashi’s perspective, Aharon not only avoids changing the commandment as he brings it to life through the performance of an action, but rather represents the blessing brought to the people of Israel as it is required to comply with Divine will. Aharon is one who is blessed with the capacity to imitate God as he manifests his own will as that of God, or, to use Rabban Gamliel’s words (Avot 2:4):

“He used to say: do His will as though it were your will, so that He will do your will as though it were His. Set aside your will in the face of His will, so that he may set aside the will of others for the sake of your will.”

Deliberately annulling one’s will, the centrality of one’s decisions and perspectives and interests, brings with it the annulment of God’s will vis-à-vis that of man, and the annulment of the collective will vis-à-vis that of the individual. Apparently, the Sfat Emet simply expands on what Rashi wrote here above – adapting one’s will to that of God is a process of clear-cut imitation, through which the individual performs as the receiver, or better as the potent receiver, of Divine Will. But he then adds that:

“We must interpret the words ‘Aron did so’ as pointing to the fact that he performed mitzvoth throughout his entire life as the unification of intention and will as one. For it is the way of all men to be awakened by good [intentions], and to then see them vanish from his heart. For this reason one must look for ways to awaken himself, every time in a different way. And the truth is that the initial sense of wonder is the most exquisite one of them all, and in this sense it is said of Aron, ‘for he did not change’, for he always found new ways to keep that initial feeling alive, constantly approaching things in new ways, as it is written [Berachot 40a], ‘if you listen to the old, you will listen to the new.’”

The Sfat Emet appears to be saying something quite unique and, in my opinion, important. The way to perform the univocal Divine commandment through the whirlpool of variety that characterizes this world, performing Divine will through the endless mutations of the human character – and this is the case not merely because there is a fundamental flaw in the human character, namely that of mutable moods and will, but rather as the way to keep the mind alive, to keep it awake. Being awake entails change, and fixity, standing and moving, focusing on the old while perambulating towards the new. Not changing the will of God is possible, in an exquisitely paradoxical way, only upon changing things radically. Imitating God is therefore possible, to conclude, only when we face the endless mutation of this world and embrace it within an enlightened passivity.

*Yaakov Mascetti holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University.