In this past week’s parsha, we are told that Moshe Rabbeinu acted as the "Kohen" for the entire inauguration process of the Mishkan. Moshe Rabbeinu was punished for arguing with Hashem at the burning bush for seven days about whether he should be the one to lead Klal Yisrael out of Egypt; thus he merited serving as the Kohen Gadol for only seven days before he lost the job to his brother Aharon and Aharon’s descendants.
The Gemara in Tractate Zevachim [102a] states that the original plan, so to speak, was that Moshe's brother Aharon was supposed to be the "Levi" and Moshe Rabbeinu was supposed to be the "Kohen." Rav Shimon bar Yochai sees this in the verse which states, "Behold Aharon, your brother, the Levi…" indicating that originally Aharon was supposed to be only the Levi; but now, because of Moshe’s refusal to immediately accept his mission, Aharon would be the Kohen.
The Baal HaTurim says an incredible thing: because Moshe refused for seven days, he got to be Kohen for seven days! This seems backwards. The longer he refuses, the longer he is Kohen? Was Moshe’s week of Kehunah a punishment or a reward? After all, being the Kohen even for seven days seems more like a reward than like a punishment!
Rabbi Yissocher Frand quotes an answer to this question from Rabbi Isaac Bernstein of blessed memory, a Rav in England, who suggests that the fact that Moshe was given the opportunity to serve for a week as Kohen Gadol was indeed a punishment. If a person would lose the Kehunah without ever having experienced it, he would not feel the loss. If, however, he loses it after having enjoyed its privilege, that is a serious punishment!
A wheelchair-confined spina bifida patient once told his friend, "If I ever had to come back to this world again as a different Gilgul (via soul transmigration), I would want to come back again with spina bifida. Why? It is because in this condition I go to Camp Simcha, I have such wonderful friends, and people treat me so beautifully. I am happy the way I am. In fact, this life has been so pleasant and so geshmak that if I had to come back again, this is exactly the way I would like to have it." That was his attitude. This patient said this because he had never experienced a regular life; had he once been able to walk to be fully functional he would have never said that he was content and happy to be stricken with spina bifida and to be wheelchair-confined!
That was Rabbi Bernstein’s understanding of this Chazal. Hashem told Moshe, "You see what it is to be a Kohen? That -- you cannot have!" We do not appreciate what we have until we lose it. However, if we have never had it, we cannot fully appreciate it.
I had the zechus to grow up in Wickliffe, Ohio, where my father arrived with the Telshe Yeshiva that had moved to Cleveland from Europe, where the entire Yeshiva was liquidated by the Nazis, yemach shemam. This move allowed my father exposure to Torah giants like his rebbe, Reb Elya Meir Bloch, and Reb Mottel Katz zt”l. As a child I was exposed to the great roshei yeshiva Reb Baruch Sorotzkin, Reb Mordechai Gifter, Reb Chaim Stein, and Reb Aizik Ausband, zichronam tzadikim livracha. They transmitted the legacy of Telz to us. My siblings and I fully appreciate the tremendous loss of these and many other great Torah leaders whom we lived with, much more than an outsider could ever appreciate, because we personally experienced their greatness up close.
Moshe Rabbeinu served as a Kohen for a very short time, but this exposure left him with a void that would last a lifetime: much more than if he had never had the opportunity to serve as a Kohen.
Rabbi Peretz Scheinerman