Adrian A. Durlester

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Random Musings Before Shabbat - Shemini 5760

Calm in a Crisis

Sandwiched quietly between descriptions of sacrificial rituals and the dietary laws, following that awful incident-the toasting of Nadav and Avihu, 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 Gd. Moshe instructs to Levites to remove the charred bodies. Immediately then, Moshe turns back to the business at end of assuring all the sacrifices are done properly. But not before taking a moment to suggest that perhaps Nadav and Avihu had been imbibing a bit too much wine. Just imagine how Aaron must be feeling. And, to put things in proper perspective, let's also think about how Moshe must have felt when he came down from Sinai only to learn that Aaron had fastened a golden calf.

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. Obviously, made of stern stuff (at least externally) Aaron appears to accept Gd's stern justice. Now Moshe asks Aaron and his two remaining sons to continue with the appropriate sacrificial rituals. Not particularly sensitive of Moshe, was it? But Aaron and his two remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, do as Moshe asks, and as Gd requires of them. They fulfill their obligations.

Gd takes Aaron aside and suggests that those doing the holy and priestly duties perhaps shouldn't drink wine. Gd doesn't come right out and say that perhaps Nadav and Avihu got a little to enthused and were imbibing a bit too much, but the implication is there. Aaron could have protested, but he didn't. Many fathers might have turned to Gd 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 Gd. 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, Gd was still charging Aaron with the important task of priest, and the responsibility of teaching Gd's laws to the people.

I don't think, however, that Aaron was frightened of what Gd might do to him. That was not Aaron's motivation to be so quiescent. He had great responsibilities-to Gd, to his brother Moshe, to the people, and to his two remaining sons. That was his motivation. He proves hid dedication to Gd 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 Gd'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 Aaron, 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 Aaron 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 Aaron 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 Aaron. 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 Aaron's calm demeanor, and Moshe's willingness to admit an error, a situation fraught with potential for trouble was resolved relatively peacefully.

Aaron 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, Aaron 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 Aaron 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 Aaron so willingly went on with his duties without question, why Gd zapped Nadav and Avihu in the first place, etc. This time I want to leave it at Aaron's calm demeanor and devotion to Gd and duty, and Moshe's readiness to admit a mistake. Good lessons for all of us.

Below, I'm throwing in a repeat RM for Shemini from 1997, as it has become something of a classic.

Shabbat Shalom,


Random Musings Before Shabbat-Shemini 5757.

Out of all the many things one could learn from and talk about in Shemini (dualities-sacred and profane, clean and unclean; holiness, why God cares about what we eat, etc.) one though kept coming back into my head. I kept thinking about what happens to Nadav and Avihu. What a bummer. They thought "more is better." And what is their reward? Fwoosh-burnt to a crisp. Proof that there really can be "too much of a good thing."

Now that may be a flippant way to put it, but it's an important lesson nevertheless. It teaches us, as do so many other things in Torah, that life needs balance. And indeed, that fits with much else that we learn about in Shemini. After all, there's no clean without unclean, and vice versa. No profane without sacred.

I have a philosophy that I use at work. It's one I learned from a old, experienced theatre professional. He called it:

GEFTS-Good Enough For This Show.

Now, at first hearing, it sounds like a negative approach. Like the old "close enough for government work" philosophy. But that's not what GEFTS is about. It's about balance, It's about "more isn't always better." Here's how I apply it - though this may be a theatrical example, I think the concept is transferable to life:

It takes many components to create a show. The capabilities of each component are determined by the resources (people, time, space, money, dedication, attitude, et al) available to it. Each component therefore has a "highest achievable level of quality" affected by those resources. The production will benefit most if all departments work together towards a highest COMMON achievable quality level. Therefore, each component should work towards this common achievable level (which, theoretically, could be somewhat lower than the level achievable by that unit alone. And lot's of people don't like that idea-but hear me out.)

Some of the best shows I have ever seen were productions in which everything was mediocre. Now, I'm not saying that one should only aim for mediocrity (though as Abe Burroughs aptly put it in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" - "mediocrity is not a mortal sin.") The shows worked because everything gelled together into a complimentary whole. If the acting were brilliant but the costumes were slipshod, it wouldn't work. If the lighting was magnificent but the scenery was only so-so - well, I think you get the drift. When all shoot for the same common achievable level of quality, you have a production that can't be beat.

The same is true in daily life and in serving God. Think about it. This is the true lesson of Nadav and Avihu.

Shabbat Shalom,


Some Other Musings on the Same Parasha

Shemini 5763-Belly of the Beast
Shemini 5762/5758-Crispy Critters
Shemini 5761-Lessons From Our Students
Shemini 5759-Porking Out

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