Sunday, March 31, 2019

Parashat Shemini: Taking Risks

Taking Risks
Thoughts on Shemini 2019
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Life is sacrifice and risk taking.
(Nassim Nicholas Taleb)[1]

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 forth 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. (VaYikra 10:1-2)

Following the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, Moshe approached Aharon and told him:
 “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.” (10:3)
Rashi interpreted Moshe’s consolation of Aharon in a somewhat surprising fashion:
…Moshe said to Aharon: “Aharon, my brother, I knew that the House (Mishkan) would become sanctified through those intimate with God, and I was under the impression that it was either through me or you. Now I see that they are greater than me and you.”[2]
Although it is possible that Moshe had stretched the truth in order to calm Aharon at that time, the fact that neither the verse nor Rashi make reference of such suggests that Moshe’s words were in fact literal. Moshe had stated that although Nadav and Avihu had transgressed by bringing forth “alien fire before God, which He had not charged them,” they nonetheless stood as greater than Moshe and Aharon! With little knowledge of any of their earlier achievements, it is surprising that the Torah hinted at their greatness specifically at the time of their sinful death. Unless, however, it was their very act of sin that somehow revealed that greatness.

Psychologist Adam Grant realized that many of the most creative minds of our generation were less-than-perfect students: Steve Jobs finished high school with a 2.65 G.P.A., J.K. Rowling graduated college with a roughly C average and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. got only one A in his four years in college. Grant explained: “Getting straight A’s requires conformity. Having an influential career demands originality.” He quoted education researcher Karen Arnold, who noted that valedictorians aren’t likely be the future’s visionaries, as “they typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up.” Grant charged today’s universities to “make it easier for students to take some intellectual risks.” And he advised employers to value skills over straight A’s.[3]

Perhaps Moshe’s perception of Nadav and Avihu’s greatness didn’t stem from knowledge of their past actions and deeds but rather from their act of sin itself. It was, paradoxically, the courageous act of bringing forth an “alien fire which He had not charged them” that proved their greatness.  Nadav and Avihu literally “played with fire” as they sought to rise above the confined world of God’s explicit words. Seeking a deeper connection with the Almighty – an unprecedented “approach of God” (16:1), Nadav and Avihu dared greatly and fell. Moshe’s consolation to Aharon, then, focused not on their fatal mistake, but on its inspired mindset.

The economist George Stigler remarked that one of the most common failures of able people is their lack of nerve. Their tendency to “play safe games” ends up ruining any chance for significant breakthroughs.[4] While we must always be mindful of the danger of taking risks, Rashi’s words regarding Moshe’s consolation of Aharon remind us of the potential greatness that lies in well-placed risks.

[1] Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life (New York, NY, 2018), pg. 121.
[2] Commentary of Rashi to VaYikra 10:3, s.v. hu.
[3] Adam Grant, “What Straight-A Students Get Wrong,” The New York Times Dec. 8, 2018.
[4] Quoted by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in Creativity: The Psychology of Discover and Invention (New York, NY, 1996), pg. 72.