Nadav and Avihu: Words may fail, but actions cannot

ImageWell, it seems that I’ve gotten myself a week off on Torah portions.  Must have been Pesach that did it to me.  My apologies to those who noticed, and graciously didn’t fill my inbox with reminders.  To those who didn’t (and I count myself in there), thanks for not noticing.

Now, on to Shemini 2.0.    It’s good that I get to revisit Shemini, because there’s an amazing narrative right smack in the middle of all the details on offerings.  It is the heart-wrenching and puzzling story of Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons.  These are Moses’ nephews, and along with Aaron and his others sons, Eleazar and Itamar, have just been installed as priests in the fledgling community of freed Israelites.

Recap: Leviticus, all about setting boundaries and discerning where they are.   About offerings (Hebrew: korbanot, from the root word “k-r-v”, which means to get closer).  Offerings are not “sacrifices”, they’re ways of getting closer to God.  Reasons to get closer to God? Guilt, thanksgiving, daily acknowledgement of God’s presence.  Detailed “recipes” on what to bring when, and how to handle the animals.    Aaron and sons get new clothes that they have to wear when they do their priestly thing.  Instructions very specific, very detailed.   Aaron and sons are given the awe-some responsibility of being very public, very honored (Hebrew word “k-b-d”, also means heavy….and isn’t being honored a heavy responsibility sometimes?)

Then, the sad tale of Nadav and Avihu.  The two sons entered the holiest spot in the Tabernacle, bringing their fire pans with them.  They offered a “strange fire” to God. Many have tried to explain what this aish zarah, strange fire, was, but who knows?  Then,  a fire came forth from God and zapped them right there, killing them instantly.  What had they done wrong?  Again, who knows?  Moses offered a cryptic statement, “This is what God meant when God said ‘Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.” ‘(Lev 10:3)  And Aaron was silent.   Ibn Ezra (12th c Spain) said that when Aaron heard what happened, he wanted immediately to drop his official duties and mourn his sons, but Moses told him he had to go on, and that Aaron had a unique job that wouldn’t allow for the public mourning.

So he was silent.

The word translated as “glory” is also from the same root “k-b-d”, honor, respect, heaviness.  All those things are laid upon those we raise up to leadership roles in our communities, and it’s not easy.  We watch leaders and their families mourn in public.  We think of Jackie Kennedy, Coretta Scott King, Ethel Kennedy who all bore their grief publically, and we can only imagine how heavy that burden was.

The story of Nadav and Avihu usually stops there, with Aaron’s silence.  But what happened after that is telling as it relates to public reaction, private grief, and action taken.  Normally, when the Israelites brought a particular sin offering, the priests ate some of it, as opposed to burning the whole thing up.  But when Moses asked about the offering, he found out it had already been burned.  At first Moses was angry with Aaron and his other sons that the procedure hadn’t been followed, but Aaron finally spoke, saying, “See this day they brought their sin offering and their burnt offering before God, and such things have befallen me!  Had I eaten the sin offering today, would God have approved?  And when Moses heard this, he approved.” (Lev. 10:19-20)

Moses realized Aaron was right.  He and his sons were in no frame of mind to fulfill their public responsibilities.  Something traumatic had happened, and it had to be acknowledged, if not in words, then in deeds.  Things were not normal just then, so “normal” behavior had to be suspended.   Aaron had to act differently.

It’s only a month since 26 people were gunned down in Connecticut, 20 of them children. Since then, so many more children and adults (someone’s children) have died in gun-related incidents. As the Newtown families grieved in private, the President had to grieve in public.  Like Aaron, he had no words at first, just the tears of a father.  But like Aaron, he also came to realize that action must be taken, acknowledgement must be made, and with the heaviness/respect that comes with leadership, he took action to change the laws of the land.  Personally, I support him and all the others who want to see these changes, especially the assault-weapons ban reinstated, and limitations on magazines.

Aaron’s grief at losing two of his children teaches us that even though words fail us at that time, our actions cannot.

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