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Shemini: You Were Chosen for This

At the beginning of this week’s Parsha, the stage is set for starting the Avodah in the Mishkan. Moshe tells Aharon and his sons to prepare animals for two Karbanos, a Karban Chatas and a Karban Olah; they bring these before the Ohel Mo’ed and stand “lifnei Hashem,” ready to perform the first sacrifices in the new Mishkan (Vayikra 9:5). It is a moment that Moshe, Aharon, and the entire Jewish people have been anticipating for weeks, and there is a palpable excitement in finally being able to do the Avodah for which the Mishkan was created.

One would imagine that Aharaon, the Kohen Gadol, would be in a hurry to begin the process of bringing Karbanos, and that he would need no reminders or prompts to initiate this holy work. Yet as they stand at the entrance to the Mishkan, Moshe says to Aharon (9:6) “Krav el HaMizbeach,” “Approach the altar!” Rashi, puzzled as to why Moshe had to provide Aharon with this additional instruction, explains that as the moment to start the Avodah drew closer, Aharon began to feel embarrassed; he thought, ‘how could I, who had a hand in the Chet Ha’Egel, enter this holy site and engage in this auspicious work?’ Rashi explains that Moshe reprimanded him for his shame and embarrassment and said, “Why are you embarrassed? You were chosen for this.” Let us explore the two important lessons captured in this dialogue.

I. Know Your Worth

Rav Shlomo Wolbe in his writings on the Chumash explains that there are three kinds of self-perception a person can have. The first, Ga’avah, is haughtiness, the feeling of superiority that one has when he thinks, “I am better than others because of my unique talents and abilities.” The second, Shiflus, is to feel lowly, to negate oneself and one’s kochos, to say, “I am not worthy.” The third is Anavah, humility, that Middah toward which we all strive; true humility, R’ Wolbe explains, is the recognition of the unique characteristics infused within you by HaKadosh Baruch Hu, the attribution of those talents and Kochos to Him, and the use of those abilities in our Avodas Hashem.

When Aharon approached the Mishkan, his feelings of shame and negative beliefs about himself pulled him into a state of Shiflus; he felt lowly, and unworthy. While Aharon is not wrong that he contributed to the Chet Ha’Egel, his focus on his mistakes is preventing him from doing the holy work for which he was intentionally selected. Moshe realizes that Aharon’s negative thinking is getting in the way of being effective, and reminds him “ki likach nivcharta;” you were chosen for this, Aharon! Now is not the time to feel lowly, to criticize yourself for the mistakes you’ve made; now is the time to remember that you are the Kohen Gadol, and you must exercise the truest form of humility, the recognition of our G-d given strengths for use to fulfill His will.

As human beings, we will fail to act in line with our values as Ovdei Hashem from time to time. Perhaps we spoke unkindly about or to someone else; perhaps we wore something that was not, in retrospect, up to our modesty standards; perhaps we just feel disenchanted and uninspired as the days and weeks go by. Shame is very powerful, and can be paralyzing. When we think, “I am not worthy,” or “I just keep messing up in this area, I’m a failure,” we might think we are engaged in Mussar, self-improvement, but in reality we are keeping ourselves stuck in the mud that is shiflus. While there is a time and a place for recognizing flaws, R’ Wolbe explains that the key and primary ingredient to Avodas Hashem is recognizing our worth. We must know that we have greatness within us, planted there by our Creator, and in order to access the change, the growth, the betterment, the self-improvement that we are seeking, we must first and continuously practice self-acceptance, and recognize the roles God has laid out for us, and approach those auspicious tasks with true humility. Each of us has a task, or set of tasks, that is uniquely ours to accomplish, and can only be accomplished through our unique strengths and abilities. If we fail to recognize “ki likach nivcharta,” that we were chosen for this life, this avodah, this opportunity, because we are too busy beating ourselves up for everything we haven’t done 100% correctly, we might never (G-d forbid) accomplish these important goals.

II. Approach, Don’t Avoid: Engaging in Opposite Action

The second pivotal lesson Moshe teaches Aharon, and all of us through him, is exactly how to pull ourselves out of a state of Shiflus and back into a state of true humility in our Avodas Hashem. In addition to reminding Aharon that he was chosen by Hashem for this task, Moshe prompts him, “Krav el HaMizbeach,” approach the Mizbeach. It would appear obvious that Aharon would need to approach the Mizbeach in order to do the Avodah; what is Moshe adding by telling him to draw close?

Opposite Action is a skill taught in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) that is used when a person feels weighed down by an emotion they cannot seem to decrease or change. For every emotion we feel, there is a related action urge: when we are afraid, we have the urge to run away, when we are angry, we have the urge to attack, and we when we feel shame, we have the urge to hide. Sometimes it is effective to act on these urges; if a bear is chasing you, for example, you will feel afraid, and it is indeed effective to run away. If you were feeling fear because you were giving a presentation, however, running away would not be effective. When a feeling is leading us to want to act ineffectively, we can use opposite action to be more effective. If I feel afraid while doing something that is not dangerous, I must approach the situation rather than avoid or escape it. If I am feeling ashamed, and I want to hide and distance myself, that is the time to share, to open up, and draw close.

When Aharon thought about his role in the Chet Ha’Egel, all of his positive qualities, his chosen status, were negated by the feeling of shame that overtook him, and he also felt afraid that Hashem would be angry with him and reject his Avodah. The Kohen Gadol wanted to hide, to run away, and to renege on his responsibilities. Moshe knew what psychologists today are just beginning to realize: opposite action was required. Moshe therefore encouraged Aharon to come close to the Mizbeach, saying, ‘I know you feel like hiding, but that is not effective right now. Approach this Avodah, act opposite to your urge, and recognize that Hashem loves you and chose you for this’.

This week, make a list of the qualities that make you great, and the related tasks and opportunities in Avodas HaKodesh that you can do with those strengths and characteristics. With these qualities, act opposite to your feelings of self-doubt, self-negation, and shame, and approach your unique Avodas Hashem with pride, knowing that Hashem placed you, with all of these seemingly disparate parts, on the unique trajectory that is your life.

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