Imagine you were the commander-in-chief of an army at a time of war, and you instructed each officer – from a lowly private to the highest ranking general – with his specific task for the current military campaign. A certain private successfully completed the task of one his superiors. As he did not do his task, and instead did the task of a higher-ranking officer, he could be tried in a military court, and would most likely be found guilty, with a punishment as severe as death! At a time of war, when everything depends on the exact execution throughout the chain of command, this patriot, so to speak, can becom like the enemy, making him worthy of court martial.
A small child would find this concept difficult, for at the end of the day he served his country and seemingly, nothing negative came out of it. This concept also exists in the sphere of kedushah and is explained by Kedushas Levi on this week’s parsha on a much higher level. The sifrei kabbalah tell us that each malach has his sphere of influence. If that malach would try to rise to a higher sphere, he would be burned by the higher Kedushah, for his existence was designed only for one particular level of Kedushah and nothing else (according to the Nefesh Hachayim, this is understood that in the higher world the malach simply does not exist).
With this concept we can understand the fact that the sons of Aharon the Cohen died because they were “morah halacha lifne rabo” – they gave a halachic decision in the place of their mentor. This concept initially sounds a bit puzzling. It seems unjust to get such a strong punishment for something that was tinged with chutzpah. However, this principle can now be understood. Since the Torah is given from teacher to student, and then from student to student’s student, etc. starting from Moshe Rabbeinu going down to us here today, a person who breaks the order of his relationship with the Torah and decides to approach the Torah on his own, without going through his mentor (when possible), is deserving of such a punishment. This is the meaning of the pasuk (16:1)
…when they drew near before Hashem, they died
By jumping ahead of their station, they caused their own death. They might have thought, “I can become closer to Hashem through my own volition, by finding a proper ruling that enables me to do what I want.”
In American history, Abraham Lincoln is looked up to, because of his ability to be self-educated and on his own, achieving a high-level of intellectual integrity, eloquence of speech and clear understanding of justice. This may be true in the world of secular knowledge. Our Torah, however, demands of us a different approach, of being taught by a rebbe in the physical sense. I once met a man – a great Talmid Chacham – who had mastered most of shas in great depths. He cried to me, saying that he knows that he is lacking for he was not blessed to have rabbeim from whom he could learn continuously on a day-to-day basis. He only was able to glean knowledge from sefarim and then to speak to other Torah scholars to find out if he is on the right path.
We live in a time that people find themselves attracted to the glitz and dazzle of the world of kabbalah. In this sphere in particular, one must understand that the need of a Rebbe is very great, and permission to enter this field is not easily obtained and should be done only under the guidance of others. When I was in Yeshiva, my Rosh Yeshiva showed me a book that came out called “Kabbalah for the Layman”. The first thing that one needs to enter the sphere of kabbalah is NOT to be a layman! To approach Kabbalah through a book, and not through a Rebbe, seems to me to be the antithesis of our mesora. In these weeks that we count up to receiving the Torah, we should thank Hashem that we still have mentors to teach us, and that we can find our place in the golden chain of mesorah.