Parashat Shemini

The Role Of The Elders

Several commentators discuss the relationship of the elders to the priests, the people, Moses, and God.

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In verses 2-4, Moses speaks to Aaron, commanding his brother to bring his own offering and then to be the one to command the Children of Israel to bring their offerings. This procedure will elevate Aaron in the eyes of the people. The elders are to stand together with Aaron.

Moses speaks to Aaron in verse 2 only, telling him to bring his own offerings. Then Moses speaks to the elders in verses 3-4, commanding each of them to instruct the people regarding their offerings.

In both of these readings, the elders are part of the chain of authority that consecrates the kohanim. However, while in the first reading, the elders form part of Aaron’s authority, in the second reading the authority of the elders derives from and is an extension of Moses’s. In other words, the elders may be regarded either as part of the institution of the priesthood or of the institution of Torah-teaching. In both readings, the elders are indispensable to the initiation of the kohanim.

(It is interesting to note that although the sons of Aaron are summoned, they are not addressed directly, because their function is completely subordinate to Aaron’s. This foreshadows the later actions of Nadav and Avihu, who, in offering strange fire before Hashem (10:1), try to set themselves up as an independent authority.)

After the people obey these commands, Moses reminds them, 

This is the thing that Hashem has commanded you to do, and the glory of Hashem will appear to you (9:6).

Ultimate authority derives from Hashem.

The people’s sacrifices mentioned in verses 3-4 are not part of the offerings described for the seven days of training and inauguration (Shemot 29). Rather, says Ramban, in addition to serving as a means of dedication, the purpose of the sacrifices on this eighth day may be to atone for the sin of the golden calf. Indeed, these offerings are similar to those brought on Yom Kippur (16:3). Also, the people’s offering of a he-goat for a sin-offering atones for the sin of the selling of Joseph. 

A fourth view of the role of the elders may be found in Vayikra Rabbah (11:8): Rabbi Akiva says that the people of Israel need their elders just as birds need wings. In this simile, the elders enable the people to ascend, even as the Divine Presence descends towards them. In addition, the elders protect the people from the intensity of their ascent.

Revelation as a Wedding

The day of the Revelation is compared to a wedding (end of Tractate Ta’anit; Torat Kohanim 7:16). The joy of that day, like the union of bride and groom, was kept within, and mixed with anxiety. Now, with the union of the shechinah (divine presence) with the people of Israel, that joy can be expressed fully and openly. The kohanim make that union possible. And the elders of Israel, who support the kohanim with testimony and the chain of Torah authority, and the people with inspiration and protection, provide a crucial, honorable link in that union.

Then, as now, the people of Israel depend upon their Torah sages to join with Hashem in joyous unity.

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Rabbi Avraham Fischer

Avraham Fischer is a rabbi at Darche Noam Institutions.