This week’s jam-packed Torah portion begins with instructions for Aaron the High Priest on how to light the Menorah (Candelabrum) in the Mishkan (Tabernacle).
G-d tells Moses to tell Aaron: “When you kindle the lamps, toward the face of the Menorah shall the seven lamps cast light” (see Numbers 8:1-2). This means that the wicks in the three lamps on either side of the Menorah should turn toward the middle lamp.
In the next verse the Torah tells us that “Aaron did so”, i.e. he followed G-d’s instructions. Rash”i quotes a Midrash which teaches that these words (“Aaron did so”) are stated “to tell the praise of Aaron, that he did not change”.
This Midrash is difficult to understand. After all, Aaron the High Priest was an exceedingly righteous and holy person, and he would never consider changing and deviating from what G-d instructed him to do! So what then is the great “praise” that the Midrash is telling us about Aaron that “he did not change”?
Much ink has been spilled by the great Bible commentators over the centuries and millennia to answer this obvious question. Allow me to share with you two insightful explanations from the great Chassidic masters:
The Kotzker Rebbe, Reb Menachem Mendel Morgenstern ZT”L (1787–1859), explains that the praise of Aaron the High Priest was that in all his years of kindling the Menorah in the Mishkan - he performed this service every single day for 39 years straight(!) - he “never changed” from the way that he lit the Menorah the very first time, when he was so full of enthusiasm and zeal. This mitzvah never became a chore to Aaron but remained fresh and exciting to him all those years.
Rabbi Meir’l of Premishlan ZT”L (1783–1850) offers a different interpretation of the Midrash. He writes that Aaron’s praise was that even though he was the High Priest and on a very high spiritual level, he “never changed” to become arrogant and haughty like so many others who attain high positions of authority, but remained the same humble and beloved person that he always was.
In more recent history, this enigmatic Midrash has been used to eulogize a great Torah scholar and leader of the Jewish people - with a message that has profound relevance for our times. But first we need a little background information:
Rabbi Aaron Kotler ZT”L (1895-1962) was one of the very few Torah giants who contributed mightily to the transformation of the face of North American Jewry in the middle of the twentieth century from one of Jewish ignorance and mourning over the Holocaust to significant progress in Torah knowledge and Mitzvah observance and rebuilding all that was lost in the war.
In postwar America, traditional observance was on the decline. Many said that Orthodoxy was doomed, that it was only viable in the Old Country but not here in the New World, and that its archaic and backward system of ideals and rituals would never survive and thrive in the modern era. Only by changing the Torah and making compromises to accommodate the new reality could there be any hope for observant Judaism.
However, along came Rav Aaron and proved everyone wrong. He dedicated his life, night and day, to the rebuilding of Yeshivos, the disseminating of true Torah values, and the strengthening of mitzvah observance in North America just like the way it was practiced in Europe before the war and going back thousands of years.
He chose Lakewood, New Jersey, as the site for his new Yeshiva in America, because its location, far from the distractions of New York City, would enable his students to concentrate on their studies. The Yeshiva began very humbly (in 1943) with only 14 students. By the time Rav Aaron passed away, there were hundreds of students, and they were beginning to have a major impact on Torah education in America.
Rav Aaron once wrote, "The great benefit that a Yeshiva brings to the Jewish people accrues to the entire nation, even to those who have distanced themselves from the Torah's ways. For the Torah and its scholars are the heart of the nation..."
Rav Aaron's efforts ultimately made a deep imprint upon American Jewry. Many thousands received a solid Torah education in or because of the Lakewood Yeshiva and its many branches. [The Yeshiva is now headed by Rav Aaron’s grandson, Rabbi Malkiel Kotler shlit”a, and has well over 6500 students enrolled!]
Today, due to the efforts of Rav Aaron and others, Orthodoxy is not just surviving but thriving, with many vibrant, Torah-observant communities all around the world (and even more so in Israel), all of whom are following in the ways of their predecessors in prewar Europe without compromise.
Rabbi Aaron Kotler died at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City on November 29, 1962. A funeral service for Rav Kotler at the Congregation Sons of Israel Kalwarier on Manhattan's Lower East Side drew 25,000 mourners, with 200 officers from the New York City Police Department assigned to the event, which was described by the congregation's president as the largest gathering of mourners in his experience. The 700 seats in the sanctuary were reserved for notables. In an atmosphere described as being reminiscent of Yom Kippur, eulogies for Rav Kotler were delivered by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and by the Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, among others.
In his eulogy, the Satmar Rebbe evoked the words of the aforementioned Midrash - “to tell the praise of Aaron, that he did not change” - to describe the remarkable accomplishment of Rav Aaron Kotler in rebuilding Torah-true Judaism in North America after the Holocaust.
Said the Satmar Rebbe, “I am here to tell the praise of [Rav] Aaron, that he did not change, i.e. in all Rav Aaron’s efforts to rebuild Torah, he never once compromised or tried to change the Torah or Judaism in any way, and always stayed true to the ancient and timeless observances and traditions that he brought with him from Europe.” Such was the legacy of Rabbi Aaron Kotler, ZT”L.