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Shemini 5761 – 2001

“The Responsibilities of Leadership”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In the opening chapters of this coming week’s parasha, parashat Shemini, we encounter Aaron and his sons on one of the most exalted days in Jewish history, the inaugural ceremony of the Tabernacle and the consecration of Aaron and his sons as priests of Israel.

According to tradition, the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, had been built and completed on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev, coinciding with the future date of the celebration of Chanukah. Starting from the twenty-third of Adar, Moses served as the temporary priest and began to practice erecting and taking down the Tabernacle. He also served as the Priest during the sanctification of the priests and the dedication Tabernacle as well. The Tabernacle was put up permanently on the first day of the month of Nisan, at which time the Cohanim assumed their new roles.

This was the day for which Aaron had longed his whole life. After enduring the travails of slavery in Egypt as well as the momentous revelation at Sinai, Aaron could finally feel proud of what he had accomplished. Chapter 10:1 reads: “Va’yik’chu v’nay Aharon, Na’dav va’Avihu eesh mach’tah’toh, va’yit’nu va’hain aish, va’yah’simu ah’leh’ha k’to’ret, va’yak’ree’vu lif’nay Hashem aish zah’rah asher lo tzi’vah oh’tam.” And the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire pan, put fire on them and placed incense on it, and they brought before G-d an alien fire that He had not commanded them. And a fire came forth from before G-d and consumed them, and they died before G-d. Moses said to Aaron: “Of this did G-d spoke saying: ‘I will be sanctified through those who are nearest me, thus will I be honored before the entire people.'” And Aaron was silent.

On the greatest day of Aaron’s life, tragedy strikes. His two sons are dead and Aaron remains silent. There are many theories proposed by our commentaries as to why Nadav and Avihu were punished so tragically. There are those who say that Nadav and Avihu were truly sinful and deserving of death. Others say that they were so pure and holy, that they needed to be taken away from a world polluted with evil.

I’d like to discuss just one of the many proposed reasons for Nadav and Avihu’s death, because it has bearing on an issue which has become relevant in our day and age. Not too long ago, Ambassador Ronald Lauder, who is the Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations broke Conference protocol to speak at a rally in Israel on behalf of the unity of Jerusalem. After being denied permission from the Conference constituents to speak at this rally, Ambassador Lauder chose to speak anyway, but stated clearly that he was speaking as an individual, not as Conference Chairman. Several weeks later new guidelines were issued by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations stating that the Conference Chairman does not have the right to speak as an individual.

Although, serving as Conference Chairman is a far cry from serving as a priest in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, there is a similarity to what took place with Nadav and Avihu. Some commentators suggest that the strange fire they offered was to fulfill an urge they had for their own self-expression. After all, every person has a right to self-expression, but apparently not when serving as a Cohen. When one is serving as a Cohen, dressed in the priestly garments, their function is limited, and must be directed to serve purely on behalf of the People of Israel. The Cohen’s functions have meaning only as part of the functions of the People of Israel.

The story of Nadav and Avihu teaches that leadership requires responsibility, which perforce results in limitations. Woe to the country who has a “regular guy” as a leader. America has suffered through that sad reality, which has resulted in the demeaning and “defining down” of the Office of President. America apparently sees validity in separating the personal life of the President and the public life of the President. Judaism doesn’t see it that way. A person who serves in a leadership role, has responsibilities. If they don’t want those responsibilities let them not assume leadership roles.

There’s wisdom in parashat Shemini. Wisdom not only for the ancients but for all future generations. Leadership requires responsibility. Leadership results in limitations. Face it or flee from it!

May you be blessed.