Sandwiched quietly between descriptions of sacrificial rituals and the dietary laws, following that awful incident-the toasting of Nadav and Avihu, those crispy critters about whom I have written great deal over the years, we find some great examples of how to handle a crisis. It’s not surprising that the two individuals who play out these issues are children of the same woman-Yocheved. But this time, it’s the one who isn’t often portrayed in a positive light that shows his true mettle.
Let’s give ourselves some context. Proper offerings have been made. Then two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu offer up some “alien fire” upon the altar, and in return, are promptly burnt to a crisp by G”d.
But here was poor Aaron, with two dead sons, and what does Moshe say to him? An odd utterance that perhaps suggest the punishment was justified.
וַיֹאמֶר מֹשֶה אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹן הוּא אֲשֶר־דִבֶר יְהוָה׀ לֵאמֹר בִקְרֹבַי אֶקָדֵשׁ וְעַל־פְנֵי כָל־הָעָם אֶכָבֵד וַיִדֹם אַהֲרֹֽן
Then Moses said to Aarm, “This is what the L”rd meany when He (sic) said: Through those near to me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.” And Aaron was silent.
Obviously, made of stern stuff (at least externally) Aharon appears, in some interpretations, to accept G”d’s stern justice. (I’ll leave discussions of why what happened to Nadav and Avihu happened to all the other musings I’ve written on the topic.)
Moshe instructs the Levites to remove the charred bodies. Then he tells Aharon, Eleazar, and Ithamar (the two remaining sons of Aharon) to not appear to be in mourning by mussing up their hair and rending their clothes. Act as if nothing has happened, lest they die too, and make G”d angry enough to threaten the whole community. WTF? To me, this gives the appearance of even Moshe thinking to himself WTF just happened-why did G”d zap Nadav and Avihu?
As if in answer to Moshe’s unspoken WTF, G”d says to Aharon that they should not drink any wine or intoxicant before entering the Tent of Meeting. (It is from this that most commentators conclude that being a bit tipsy led Nadav and Avihu to offer alien fire and get barbequed. I still it’s a stretch, and to this day, I think WTF is still the proper reaction to what happened to our two crispy critters.)
G”d doesn’t come right out and say that perhaps Nadav and Avihu got a little to enthused and were imbibing a bit too much. Aharon could have protested, but he didn’t. Many fathers might have turned to G”d and said “hey, my boys are good boys. They weren’t drinking to much, they just got a little over eager. And for that you had to fry them?” Aaron had every right to be upset with G”d. Perhaps he was. But Aaron realized that little might be served by being publicly upset. And, after all, even after the golden calf thing, and even after Nadav and Avihu, G”d was still charging Aaron with the important task of high priest, and the responsibility of teaching G”d’s laws to the people.
Immediately then, Moshe turns back to the business at hand of assuring all the sacrifices are done properly. Moshe asks Aharon and his two remaining sons to continue with the appropriate sacrificial rituals. Not particularly sensitive of Moshe, was it? But Aharon and his two remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, do as Moshe asks, and as G”d requires of them. They fulfill their obligations. Perhaps they were too in shock to do otherwise?
I don’t think, however, that Aaron was frightened of what G”d might do to him. That was not Aharon’s motivation to be so quiescent. He had great responsibilities-to G”d, to his brother Moshe, to the people, and to his two remaining sons. That was his motivation. He proves his dedication to G”d and to the people, and even to his brother, by continuing to perform his duties.
But then Moshe, obviously given to moods, and perhaps a bit anal about making sure G”d’s requirements get met, steps over the line. Moshe’s anger has led him to an error regarding the laws of sacrifice. Moshe, at least showing Aaron some sensitivity, does not confront Aharon, but rather Eleazar and Ithamar with the question of the goat of sin offering. (Not that Eleazar and Ithamar weren’t traumatized by what had just happened to their brothers, but at least Moshe had the common decency not to take this matter up with a grieving father.) And Moshe became angry at Eleazar and Ithamar when he learned that the goat of sin offering was not properly eaten by Aharon and his sons within the confines of the holy areas. Eleazar and Ithamar show great restraint at not correcting their uncle. But this must have been too much for Aaron to bear-how could his own brother be hounding Eleazar and Ithamar, who had just lost their two brothers, about this.
But does Aharon get angry or rageful or mad? No. He calmly explains to his brother Moshe that he had make a mistake in interpreting the laws of sacrifice, and that he and his sons, as they were in mourning, should not have consumed the goat of the sin offering. In his agitated state, Moshe could easily have argued with Aharon. But Moshe saw that Aaron was right, and the situation was defused.
The story ends there, and the parasha goes on to the dietary laws. So we don’t really know how things played out. But with Aharon’s calm demeanor, and Moshe’s willingness to admit an error, a situation fraught with potential for trouble was resolved relatively peacefully.
Aharon showed great poise here. Oh, in modern pop psychology terms one might say Aaron was simply stuffing it, and it might have to be dealt with later. But, all in all, for a man who had just lost two sons, Aharon managed to stay pretty calm. He hadn’t shut himself off from the world, either-for he was alert enough to notice Moshe’s error. Moshe, too, showed the courage to admit he was wrong.
Would that we were all so capable to working through a crisis as well as these two brothers did.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit there are also many troubling elements to this whole story. But both Aharon and Moshe ultimately showed mature behavior. And, this time around, I’ll focus on those. Maybe next time around I’ll wonder why Moshe got so upset, why Aharon so willingly went on with his duties without question, why G”d zapped Nadav and Avihu in the first place, etc. At one time, I wanted to leave it at Aharon’s calm demeanor and devotion to G”d and duty, and Moshe’s readiness to admit a mistake. Good lessons for all of us. Today, I’m not as sure of the source of, or the value of, Aharon’s silence. Why did not Aharon rage, rage, against the dying of the light?
Then again, let us think about another time we see the root dalet-mem-mem, meaning silent, used. It is when we reas of the “kol d’mamah dakah” the still small voice. Perhaps Aharon;s silence was to enable him to try and hear G”d, and perhaps from this to understand why this tragedy had befallen his family. Yeah, I’m good with that. For now. who knows about the next time I revisit this story.
©2015 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings On This Parasha:
Sh’mini 5774 – Indubitably Delicious
Sh’mini 5772 – Collect Call
Sh’mini/Shabbat Parah 5771-So Say We All
Sh’mini 5770 – Don’t Eat That, It’s Not Kosher
Sh’mini 5769 srettirC ypsirC
Sh’mini 5767-Don’t Be a Stork
Shemini 5765-It All Matters
Shemini 5764-Playing Before Gd
Shemini 5763 – Belly of the Beast
Shemini 5762-Crispy Critters
Shemini 5761-Lessons From Our Students
Shemini 5760-Calm in a Crisis
Shemini 5759-Porking Out