Friday, April 13, 2018

Parashat Shemini: Courage

A Message for Parashat Shemini 2018
Click here to view as PDF

The festive atmosphere in the Mishkan on its initial day of operation was unexpectedly marred by the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. Aharon’s sons “brought forward alien fire before God” (Vayikra 10:1), and were swiftly met with their demise:
And a fire came out from before God and consumed them, and they died before God. (10:2)
Moshe then turned to Aharon and said:
This is what God spoke saying, “Through those close to Me I shall be sanctified, and in all the people’s presence shall I be honored.” (10:2)
The Hakhamim were sensitive to Moshe’s rationale and imagined a more detailed conversation:
Aharon was standing in astonishment…Moshe entered and appeased him, saying to him: Aharon my brother, God told me at Sinai: “I will sanctify this house (the Mishkan) in the future, and with a great person I will sanctify it…It now appears that your sons are greater than you and me, as the house (the Mishkan) was sanctified through them.[1]
God had in fact said of the Mishkan, “And I shall meet there with Bnei Yisrael and it shall be consecrated through My glory” (Shemot 29:43), and according to the Hakhamim, His sanctity was finally manifested in the Mishkan through the deaths of Nadav and Avihu.

The fact that God’s “sanctity” and “honor” emerged from the deaths of Nadav and Avihu is clear from the text of the Torah and the Hakhamim’s elaboration. Its logic, however, is absent. How did death, of all phenomena, demonstrate God’s unique essence at that time?

The well-known psychotherapist Viktor Frankl distinguished between two types of people: pacemakers and peacemakers. He explained that whereas pacemakers confront us with meanings and values, peacemakers merely alleviate the burden of confrontation. He suggested, for example, that Moshe acted as a “pacemaker” when he confidently presented the Torah to Am Yisrael. He confronted them directly with God’s ideals and values at Har Sinai and spared nothing by means of appeasement.

Frankl further explained that God’s leadership in the midbar, in the form of the amud anan (pillar of cloud), may serve as another prime example of a pacemakers actions. God led the people through the wilderness from the front, as He trailblazed a clear path for them to journey upon. If His presence had instead dwelled in the middle of the people it would have “clouded everything” and led them astray. The cloud would have ceased to be a leader and become a fog. God’s leadership of Am Yisrael, then, was driven by the clear mission of a pacemaker.[2]

God’s fiery consumption of Nadav and Avihu was perhaps another demonstration of His presence as a pacemaker. A peacemaker would have pardoned them for entering an “alien fire” into the Mishkan. He would retract in order to avoid conflict and maintain the equilibrium. A pacemaker, however, understands his true role as a leader, and courageously steps forward to maintain an ideal – as painful as it may seem. God demonstrated His “honor” and “sanctity” at the Mishkan by dealing with Nadav and Avihu in a characteristically “pacemaker fashion,” as the painful deaths of Aharon’s sons afforded the nation a brief glimpse of His true essence.

Our lives present us with the constant decision to act either as a “peacemaker” or a “pacemaker.” Joseph Fabry characterized the difference:
Today’s peacemakers think not in terms of ideals but of normalcy; they trust not in hopes and dreams but in statistics and opinion polls. They talk about the “average” person instead of the unique individual…In an effort to “adjust to the facts of life” they accept the standards of the enemy they are fighting.
He noted that man’s search for meaning in life forces him to operate as a pacemaker. The envisioned life of the peacemaker –the “average” person – will never yield meaning because “average meaning” does not exist.[3]

Searching for meaning in our own lives requires a careful analysis of God’s many ways. His actions at the Mishkan regarding Nadav and Avihu guide us to the difficult decisions of a pacemaker. Standing up for an ideal is often fraught with conflict and ill-will. Fearing the potentials of tension and pressure, the peacemaker retracts. Understanding his role as a leader, however, the pacemaker acts.

[1] Sifra 17:21.
[2] Viktor Frankl, Psychotherapy and Existentialism (New York, NY, 1967), pg. 11-12.
[3] Joseph B. Fabry, The Pursuit of Meaning (Charlottesville, VA, 2013), pg. 78-9.