Parashat Shemini’s Lessons of Leadership

Shemini By :  Matthew Berkowitz Director of Israel Programs Posted On Mar 26, 2011 / 5771 | Torah Commentary

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 living in the 127 provinces of the Persian monarch Ahashverosh. Through the downfall of Queen Vashti, the cunning strategy of Mordechai, and the beauty and wit of Esther, as well as other twists and turns, the Jews are saved from what appears 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, we encounter this week’s parashah, Parashat Shemini, which provides a stark example of celebration suddenly transformed into mourning. Having completed the building of the Tabernacle 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 Lord strange fire, which God had not commanded them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them: thus they died at the instance of the Lord.” 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, Commentary on the Torah, 252). 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.

Richard Elliot Friedman, professor of Bible at University of California San Diego, takes the lesson of leadership a step further, focusing on Moses’s response to Aaron when he declares, “This is what the Lord meant when He said, ‘Through those near to Me I will show Myself Holy and gain glory before all the people,'” (Lev. 10:3). Friedman writes, “Their pain is a reminder that the standard for leaders is tougher than for others. According to the Torah, leaders do not get away with more because of their positions. Priests, prophets, kings, rabbis, presidents: they suffer harder consequences” (Friedman, Commentary on the Torah, 342). Moreover, Friedman points out that Moses’s words chillingly set the stage for what will bring both him and his brother to their end. “When Moses [will strike] strikes the rock at Meribah, God will impose a frightful consequence for him and for Aaron, dying without entering the land of Israel. And the reason that God will give to Moses and Aaron [will be] is: ‘Because you did not trust in Me, to make Me Holy before the eyes of the children of Israel’ (Num. 20:12). Moses’ own words to Aaron here will come to testify against him there. And as Aaron is silent here, Moses makes no answer there” (Friedman, 342). And so Friedman contributes two more aspects to teaching on leadership from this episode: first, whether fair or not, there exists a higher standard for leaders than for the masses; the degree of responsibility and culpability is much higher. Second, one must live in accordance with one’s wisdom. Moses preaches to Aaron about those near to God acting in holy ways and sanctifying God’s Name, yet ultimately, it is his own shortcoming in this “department” that leads to his downfall.

Lessons in leadership may also be learned from the surviving father and from God’s response. Aaron’s reaction is deeply human, and deeply puzzling. After the deaths of the sons and Moses’s wisdom, we are told, “Vayidom Aharon“—”And Aaron was silent” (Lev. 10:3). What is one to make of Aaron’s silence? Is it a response to the shock of losing two children? Could it be his rejoinder to Moses? Perhaps Aaron is deeply disturbed by Moses’s teaching in this moment and the only proper response to his brother is silence. Or could there be something else at play here? Whatever rationale one may choose to argue, one senses the depth of Aaron’s pain and sorrow in the Torah’s portrait of this mournful father. Even though he is a communal leader in the midst of a national celebration, Aaron pauses to be human, serving as a role model to his family and to his people. And finally, there is the easily overlooked role of God. Subsequent to this tragic episode, we are told that “The Lord spoke to Aaron . . .” (Lev. 10:8). Numerous commentators point out that this is the first time God speaks to Aaron since Exodus 4:27, when God tells him to meet Moses in the wilderness. Although there is a long period of silence in God’s relationship with Aaron, God knows well that his servant needs him in this moment. God breaks the silence—realizing the need to be present and, through communication, to comfort the grieving father.

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. Community must be an intimate part of one’s vision. Communication is essential to sacred service. Responsibility of the leader is paramount. Wisdom should be preached with restraint and sensitivity and knowledge of one’s own limitations. Sometimes silence is the only proper response. And even if one has been absent, knowing when to break the silence and reconnect is vital. May we learn from Nadav, Avihu, Aaron, Moses, and God!

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.