Drash on Parashat Shemini 2019
Rabbi Gersh Lazarow
Temple Beth Israel, St Kilda, Victoria
Parashat Shemini's Lessons of Leadership
This past week, Jewish communities the world over rejoiced in the celebration of Purim. At the core of our commemoration of this holiday stands the scroll of Esther, the plot of which revolves around the evil designs of Haman to wreak havoc on the Jewish people and the twists and turns that eventually saved the Jews from what appeared to be certain destruction.
"The very day on which the enemies of the Jews had expected to get them in their power, the opposite happened, and the Jews got their enemies in their power" (Esther 9:1). More than that, we read, "grief and mourning was transformed to happiness and feasting" (Esther 9:22). The proverbial tables are turned for the good of the Jewish people.
In contrast, this week's parashah, Parashat Shemini, provides a stark example of celebration suddenly transformed into mourning. Having completed the building of the Mishkan and set the foundation for divinely ordained sacrifices, the Israelites are ready to offer the first sacrifice celebrating the inauguration of Israel's priesthood. The celebration, however, is tragically interrupted by the deaths of Aaron's eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu. What makes their ending even more shocking is that their downfall comes while they are performing their priestly deeds. How are we to understand this fateful episode, and what does this tragic mishap teach us about leadership?
The Torah relates the somewhat cryptic circumstances surrounding the deaths of these brothers. Leviticus 10:1–2 tells us, "Now Aaron's sons, Nadav, and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire on it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Eternal strange fire, which God had not commanded them. And fire came forth from the Eternal and consumed them: thus they died at the instance of the Eternal."
What was the fatal misstep of Aaron's sons? Samson Raphael Hirsch writes, "They were indeed the sons of Aaron but did not consult their father about their ideas, or perhaps because they were the sons of Aaron they thought they were above all advice. But they were only Nadav and Avihu, only individual members of the nation, and did not seek advice from the leader of the nation; or it was just the value that they put on their own individual personalities that made them think they were self-sufficient".
Hirsch reinforces his argument by relating back to the text, which states that "each took his own fire pan." From this description, Hirsch argues that they selfishly approach God "not with the appropriate vessels of the Sanctuary but with their own personal instruments, without a sense of self-renunciation and humility." His argument is compelling. Hirsch paints a portrait of two brothers acting out of a sense of entitlement. Their father was Aaron, the high priest, and brother of Moses - and so they felt they could act as they wished. In a way, they considered themselves above Torah.
Similarly, Leviticus Rabbah 20 suggests that "they did not consult one another . . . each one acted individually on his own." Even between these two siblings, there was no communication before engaging in their sacred duties inappropriately. Hence, Torah warns us against entitlement, pride, and isolation. Communication is essential to holiness, and one must see oneself as part of the larger community.
Though tragedy mars celebration in Parashat Shemini, the loss of Nadav and Avihu comes to teach us valuable lessons in life and in leadership. Entitlement must be avoided at all costs. The community must be an intimate part of one's vision. Communication is essential to sacred service. The responsibility of the leader is paramount. Wisdom should be preached with restraint and sensitivity and knowledge of one's own limitations.
Parashat Shemini might not be filled with all the excitement and celebration of the Purim story but perhaps the lessons it offers in leadership are as important, if not more important!