Thursday, April 12, 2018

Parashat Shemini: Balanced Decisions

Balanced Decisions
A Message for Parashat Shemini 2017
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The narrative of Parashat Shemini begins on the last day of the eight-day installment period of Aharon and his sons. Aharon strictly observed the intricate sacrificial processes as instructed, concluding with the elevation of the animal body parts “as He had charged Moshe” (9:21). Momentarily breaking from the scripted activities, Aharon paused to bless the nation: “And Aharon raised his hands toward the people and blessed them” (22). His initial emergence in the role of kohen gadol was a perfect blend of strict obedience and appropriate proactivity.

The day’s activities were then suddenly marred by the surprising death of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. Moshe provided the explanation: “This is just what God spoke, saying, ‘Through those close to Me shall I be hallowed and in all the people’s presence shall I be honored”. And Aharon reverted, again, to an obedient silence: “And Aharon was silent” (10:3). He and his sons followed God’s command to refrain from public mourning: “And they did according to the word of Moshe” (10:7).

The final steps of the sacrificial processes then continued, but were halted abruptly when Moshe noticed that the flesh of the hatat goat was burnt instead of eaten. He hastily admonished Aharon’s sons for their failure to follow directions, but Aharon now defended: “Had I eaten a hatat today, would it have seemed good in the eyes of God?” His innovative decision to refrain from eating on the day of his sons’ deaths was again deemed appropriate: “And Moshe heard, and it seemed good in his eyes” (10:20).

Seen through the lenses of successfully balanced judgments about how and when to act, the story of Aharon and his sons at the onset of the parashah meshes with its subsequent missvot, each of which stresses the importance of mindfulness:

And God spoke to Aharon saying, “Wine and strong drink you shall not drink…when you come into Ohel Mo’ed…to divide between the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean, and to teach Bnei Yisrael all the statutes that God spoke to them by the hand of Moshe. (10:8-11)

And God spoke to Moshe to Aharon, saying to them, “Speak to Bnei Yisrael, saying, ‘These are the beasts that you may eat…’ (11:1-2)  This is the teaching about beast and bird and every living creature that sirs in the water and every swarming thing that swarms on the earth, to divide between the unclean and the clean and between the animal that is eaten and the animal that shall not be eaten” (47)

Realizing this unifying theme of the seemingly disparate sections of the parashah further sensitized me to the core flaw of Nadav and Avihu:

…And a fire came out from before God and consumed on the altar the burnt offering and the fat…And the sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, took each of them his fire-pan and put fire in it and placed incense upon it and brought forward alien fire before God, which He had not charged them. And fire came out from before God and consumed them, and they died before God. (9:24, 10:1-3)

Sandwiched between descriptions of fire “from before God,” Nadav and Avihu’s sin consisted of a self-lit fire “which He had not charged them.” The narrative thus stressed the clash between their fire and that of God. It highlighted their inability to separate between the two, and their failure to evaluate the situation with precision.

In a parashah that consistently stresses the importance of balanced decisions – between obedience and proactivity, holy and profane, clean and unclean, kosher and unkosher – the sin of Nadav and Avihu stands out as its failed completion. It reminds us of the balanced approach that is necessary for appropriately “sifting through” our encountered dilemmas, and the dangers inherent in an absent-minded existence.