Parashat Shemini

Leaders for our TimeOne of the most troubling episodes in the entire Torah is found in this week’s parasha. I am referring to the deaths of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu. They have just been initiated into the priesthood and have been instructed about the proper conduct of worship in the Tabernacle. Something goes terribly wrong. They offer what the Torah calls an “alien fire” to the Tabernacle and are consumed by it. They are totally immolated.  The Torah itself is very mysterious about this. It does not tell us what exactly was “alien” about this fire, or what the motivations were of Aaron’s two sons in offering it. One of my rabbinic colleagues found 45 possible reasons that he gathered from various commentators as to why Nadav and Abihu brought this alien fire into the Tabernacle and why they died. The reasons range from their passionate desire to serve G-d, to their jealous ambition to usurp the role of their father, Aaron, in the priestly hierarchy.  What an enormous tragedy for this family. What should have been one of the proudest days of Aaron’s life – the ordination of his four sons into the priesthood – turns, instead, into a day of mourning for two of them.  What is equally perplexing   is the reaction of Aaron’s brother, Moses to this loss.   For Moses says to Aaron, “This is what G-d meant when He said, ‘Through those near to me I show myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.” Over the centuries, Rabbis have debated the meaning of Moses’ words. We are not sure what they mean, and we are not sure what that meant to Aaron. The Torah, however, records Aaron’s reaction – “And Aaron was silent.” Some believe that Aaron was silent because he was simply dumbfounded by Moses’ insensitivity during his time of grief. Moses seems to be offering an explanation for the inexplicable, a theological justification for what just happened. In preparing this sermon I was reminded of reading, some years ago, about the sudden death of Leonard Fein’s 30 year old daughter from cardiac arrest. You might recognize Leonard Fein as a well-known Jewish writer, publisher and social activist. He wrote that of all the many rabbis who contacted him or visited him in the aftermath of his daughter’s sudden death, among these many prominent theologians, not one of them offered a theological explanation for what had happened. Not one of them tried to explain why G-d would take his 30 year old daughter so suddenly from him. Leonard Fein wrote that he was grateful for this and for their simple acts of condolence. Let us return to the Biblical story. Later on in that tragic day, Moses, who is diligently keeping track to make sure all of the sacrifices in the Tabernacle are properly offered, discovers that Aaron has not handled the peoples’ sin offering according to regulation. He seems to lose his temper with his brother. “Why did you not eat the sin offering in the sacred area?” he asks of Aaron. “After all that has happened to me today,” replies Aaron sadly, “had I eaten the sin offering, would G-d have approved?” Moses then understood that this was not the day to hold Aaron accountable for the details of the sacrificial offerings.  Clearly, for all of Moses’ greatness, he is not the most sensitive in interpersonal relationships. He is not, as we say in our day, “a people person”.  The midrash tells us that Moses’ motto, the philosophy by which he led and lived, was “Let the law pierce the mountains”.  That is to say, that Moses believed that the letter of the law must prevail, even if it involves great loss or sacrifice to the individual or to the community.  Moses is a master of the law, and the kind of leader that the people of Israel needed in their time. The question for tonight is, “What kind of leaders to the Jewish people need in our time?” Rabbi Adin Steinsalz, one of our greatest contemporary rabbis, explores this issue in a recent op-ed for the Times of Israel, entitled, “Who Will Be our Rabbis?” He notes that a century ago, people expected and wanted their rabbis to be halakhic masters, rabbis who could guide them in the proper ways of living a Jewish life. But, hardly anyone consults rabbis about Kashrut anymore.  Who are appropriate rabbis today?  He cannot point to anyone in particular, but he answers, in typical rabbinic fashion, with a story: It happened that the Maggid of Mezeritch, a Chassidic Master, gathered his disciples and told them that he was ill and would die within the year.  They needed to seek another rebbe. They asked him, “How can we tell who to follow, who is a rebbe?”  He replied that they should ask the person they are considering for a way to fight vain pride. If he gives them advice, then he is worthless. If he says, “G-d will help” then they should follow him. The rabbis of our time, Rabbi Steinsalz is saying, need not be, and should not be, like Moses, who offers an answer in response to his brother, Aaron’s unfathomable tragedy. Moses has an answer for everything, and what he doesn’t know, he asks G-d directly. The rabbis of our time need to be comfortable with saying, “I don’t know” and be able to be with people in their pain — a pain which no simple formula, no heartfelt prayer, no wise advice, can banish.  The Book of Numbers, Rabbi Steinsalz reminds us, calls the leaders of our people “the heads of the thousands of Israel”. Thus, the true leader is like a head, that part of the body that knows what is happening to all the other parts, and can feel the pain of each and every one of them. Shabbat Shalom