Sermon: From Temple Protocol to a Story about Us

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 22 April 2017

At the end of the portion that Maya just read so beautifully for us, we find a rather strange little episode.  In the immediate wake of the deaths of Nadav and Abihu, far from treating his brother and nephews with sensitivity, Moses loses his temper with them over a matter of Temple protocol.

The goat of sin offering, one of three offerings to be made that specific day, was normally to be eaten by the priests.  However, when Moses inquires (and he does so very firmly: the bible uses a form known as the infinitive of emphasis “darosh darash” – incidentally, these two words are the two middle words of the whole Torah, “to emphatically inquire”, which is rather a nice coincidence) he discovers that it has been burned to ashes instead.
And then:
“Va-yiktzof al Elazar v’al Itamar b’nei Aharon ha-notarim” – “Moses was angry (he was wrathful, he raged upon – it’s quite a strong word) Elazar and Itamar, the remaining sons of Aaron”.

Aaron intervenes, reminds his brother that they are in mourning, so it would be inappropriate to eat of the meat of a regular offering – as this one goat was – and that God wouldn’t have liked it, and Moses stands down.

It is an odd interaction, and one we might be inclined to skip over.  Except that, to the rabbis, it was odd narratives such as this that were often a source of – to use one of those awful modern phrases – a “teachable moment”.  In a variety of midrashim, from one of which we have taken our haftarah for this morning, the rabbis interrogated the language found in these few verses, and reconstructed events to create new learnings for themselves and us – about how we should be, our interactions with one another, and about the nature of leadership.

What are some of the lessons that they drew?

One is about the danger of anger.  Moses, we know, has an occasional problem with his temper.  Ultimately, it is this that will prevent him from entering the Land of Israel.  But, the rabbis note, it also affects his legal judgement.  A rabbinic tradition tell us that this is one of three occasions on which Moses, in a pique of anger forgets an important piece of halachah and needs to be reminded by those around him.  To us this might not seem a big deal, but for the rabbis, living in an oral legal tradition, to forget a halachah is a huge deal.  So, the rabbis caution against loss of control of this sort.  As Maimonides will later put it in his Mishneh Torah:  The rabbis taught: “Whenever someone becomes angry, if they are a wise person, their wisdom leaves them; if a prophet, their prophecy leaves them”.

It is not only to Moses that the rabbis look for learning.  In this short interaction, they also draw on the behaviour of Aaron and his sons: they learn from the respect shown by Elazar and Itamar to their uncle and their father: that they kept silent through the abuse they received, even though they knew they’d done nothing wrong.  According to the midrash, they thereby earned the right to be spoken to by God in the next chapter.  Sometimes the right thing to do is to be silent, even when we know that we are right.

The rabbis also pointed to the example of Aaron, who did speak, but not immediately.  He waited for his brother to finish before firmly, but wisely responding.  In Avot d’Rabbi Natan, which is a midrashic exposition of Pirkei Avot, the example of Aaron is cited as proof of the statement “The wise person does not cut into the speech of another” – one of seven characteristics of a wise person.  As Avot d’Rabbi Natan puts it, “Aaron kept quiet until Moses had finished what he wanted to say, he did not say to him “Cut your words short”.  Only afterwards did he speak to Moses”.  Instead of cutting in and proving that he was right, which he was, he gave his brother the opportunity to say what he had to say before responding, perhaps, therefore, making it easier for the situation to be defused.

Perhaps the most powerful lesson the rabbis drew from our story is one about leadership – one which seems especially timely for us in this election season.  We live in a world in which it is seen as weak to be wrong, seen as weak to admit that someone else might know more than you.  And yet, that is exactly what Moses does.  He is not too proud to admit he’s wrong and to back down.  Midrashically, in fact, he not only admits his mistake, but names it publicly.  According to our midrash this morning, “hotzi k’ruz l’chol ha-machaneh” – “he issued a proclamation to all of the camp” saying “I made a mistake, and my brother taught me”. Honest and open self-criticism is one of the marks of greatness in leadership – it does not detract from strength, but enhances it.

In the hands of the rabbis, this odd little episode becomes a source of learning.  They learn lessons about how we are to be in our lives, about what it is to be a leader.  Interestingly, none of the lessons is easy to achieve: it is hard to hold our tongues, to control our tempers, to admit when we are wrong.  And this is rather the point: Moses and Aaron are not exemplars of perfection but of human weakness and struggle – of our capacity for good and bad.