The 8th Day: Tragic Death & Unwise Speech
Welcome to Awakening: Torah Mussar Mindfulness, where we at The Institute for Holiness: Kehilat Mussar meet weekly at 15:00/3pm EST on Sundays to learn from the Torah/Hebrew Bible portion that we just observed on the Jewish Sabbath/Shabbat from the unique lens of Mussar Mindfulness and then apply what we learn to our seated Insight Meditation and Mindfulness practice. You may join us on Zoom (link here) or LIVE on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube. All sessions are recorded and can be found at our website (www.kehilatmussar.com) in the Blog section.
Before we begin delving into the weekly Torah/Hebrew Bible portion/parasha, this week being Sh’mini, we pray that our Intention/Kavannah be of learning Torah, Mussar, and the Dharma together and practicing Mussar Mindfulness. We commit to learn and practice together once a week to strengthen our Middot/soul-traits and souls, to be of service to others and God/Hashem; indeed, to bring God’s Good to others.
We always begin our practice with our Kavanah/Intention for today’s practice: to do this type of practice and care as an act of self-care and to connect us with the Divine, and ultimately, to other people. So, before doing this engagement of learning and practice together we say: this is something I am doing to strengthen my own soul in order to be of benefit to others in the future; and then our last paragraph: this is something that I’m doing to strengthen my relationship with the Creator so that I can be a better conduit of God’s Good to others when they need me. (See below)
We use the first and third Kavanot/Intentions listed below for today’s learning and practice:
In Sh’mini, meaning the 8th for the 8th day after the 7 days of seclusion of the priests, we are welcome to the inauguration of their new sanctioned authority, service, and roles. This is the Kohenim’s/priests’ first day of service before God and all the people. Aharon, the high priest, presents the offering on behalf of the people and the offering is not only accepted by the Divine, but rather God’s glory and presence manifests in a not seen before blazing, all consuming fire that takes the offering. The people in awe and fear now sing and bow to the Lord. Aharon and Moshe proceed to another space while not paying attention to the other priests among them: Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s sons and Moshe’s nephews.
Beginning with the middah/soul-trait of Responsibility/Acharayut, which in our tradition usually means toward or for another, we witness Aharon and Moshe ignore a key duty of theirs: to make sure the newly trained priests are doing what they are supposed to on this first day of service. Perhaps caught up in their own rapture that the offering was accepted by God in front of all the people, they neglect to pay attention to the fact that the younger priests grab pans of offering of their own and enter the holy sanctuary to offer strange/alien fire that was not commanded.
We have seen this irresponsible behavior before in Moshe and Aharon, not fully comprehending the consequences of their behavior as leaders of a people. Moshe ascends a mountain for 40 days, thereby leaving the people on their own, not comprehending that a leader of a formerly enslaved people is best to physically remain close to his people. Aharon responds to the people’s demand for a god (or leader replacement) when Moshe did not return when the people expected or desired, not comprehending that as the stand-in leader of the people while Moshe was away, he was responsible for directing the people on the wise, wholesome path, not building them a Golden Calf.
When leaders do not maintain mindfulness of their responsibilities to their people (and even service/family balance), but rather allow themselves to be consumed with the service of the moment, we witness tragic, harmful results that cause suffering to all involved. Our case in point now is the consumption of Nadav and Avihu by God’s fire of glory. Day one of service is also the last day of service for these junior priests.
And what do we want or expect in this moment? We expect that Moshe will use wise speech and comfort his brother Aharon? We expect Aharon to respond with shock, grief and perhaps anger or at least confusion as to why God consumed his children. While Aharon’s lack of words in response to Moshe’s unwise, unhelpful words may indeed reflect all of the emotion-states above, we are left only as interpreters, projecting our own reaction to the text and to the tragic killing of two of our ancestors on their first day of holiness of time in holiness of space.
The spiritual discipline of offering a sacrifice for a larger purpose is being institutionalized in Vayikra/Leviticus. ק.ר.ב/K.R.V means to draw near, close, and that root is in the word Korban/Sacrifice. In building the Golden Calf, our ancestors were attempting to have a Moshe-replacement, to cause Moshe and God to draw close: to respond to their korban, their offering. Here too, when our ancestors were to bring an animal sacrifice or flour-gift to the community center called the Mishkan, they were attempting to draw God near, to fulfill the conditions that God would accept them and affect atonement. In their drawing close, and sacrificing something for God (in having to give up something, even a life of an animal), they were realigning themselves with the upright path expected of them by God.
Whatever Aharon’s internal life and reasons for his silent, still reaction to his sons’ deaths, we witness Moshe respond to the consumption of Nadav and Avihu with unwise, non-compassionate speech toward Aharon. Speech is considered unwise and not right when: it is not kind; not timely as what the receiving party is able to hear at the time; or not helpful for the receiving party’s benefit; or finally, not truthful.
In Leviticus 10:3, Moshe tells Aharon that not only has God been made holy through this loss, but God has also gained glory before all the people. Perhaps it is only our reaction to the text, however, I do not think this is what Aharon needed to hear right in that moment. Moshe does not inquire into his brother’s shock or loss. Instead, he responds with judgment and declaration.
When Moshe finally does inquire about something toward Aharon’s surviving sons, it is not about how Aharon and they are handling the loss of their son and brother. Rather, his inquiry is actually judgment again about why they haven’t eaten the sin offering as they were commanded.
In Vayikra, we are meant to give up something meaningful to us to draw near to the Divine, to benefit others by including them in our sacrifice (for example in the Shalmim offering, שלמים), and to admit and correct sin and guilt. Sh’mini flips everything on its head: Aharon and two of his sons gave up something profoundly meaningful to draw near to God; and they were meant to share in the sin offering but Aharon interprets the wholesome, upright path and law for his remaining sons and himself and decides not to consume the sin offering.
When Aharon finally does speak in our parasha, he shares with Moshe that it would have been inappropriate in God’s eyes to eat when he just lost two sons. Aharon is actually interpreting the law and how he is to behave and he chooses the life-affirming path, thereby teaching Moshe what is the appropriate behavior during this acute situation. Aharon violated an established law (that the Kohenim are to eat the sin offering) and he is not punished for this transgression. Rather, God’s silence and Moshe’s silence connote agreement or concession with Aharon’s decision. Remember how silence figures in this parasha as a profound statement.
Recall that Moshe used to be a young man with difficult speech, a heavy tongue. He was someone who preferred silence and spoke with his deeds rather than his words. He required the verbal assistance and courage of his older brother, Aharon, to return with him to Egypt to fulfill God’s orders to free his people from slavery. And now, we witness in Sh’mini that Aharon again will guide Moshe through speech as Moshe returns to silence. Aharon is again helping stretch Moshe: helping him calm down his judgment, fear, and anger. And that is how these two have been working together since they returned to Egypt together.
It is in Moshe’s silence that we inquire and attempt to give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he approached Aharon and his sons later with unbalanced anger and judgment because he feared for Aharon’s and their lives; that God forbid, Hashem would consume them too with the blazing fire.
Recall how we are taught in Vayikra that we are not only meant to sacrifice something for God, but also we are meant to draw near, to sacrifice, in a wholesome way. How? With balanced Humility, taking up the proper amount of space, and with a generous heart. Nadav and Avihu are now individual representations of the same pure impulse for connection that led a mass number of our ancestors to build and worship around the Golden Calf. Nadav’s and Avihu’s intention was to draw near. However, they did not behave with balanced Humility (taking up one’s appropriate amount of space relative to one’s position or role in society). Their first day of service on behalf of God and others reflected unbalanced Humility with their impulsive, reactive (perhaps greedy) behavior to offer their own fire, which God did not command, which God did not want. Recall our ancestors’ similar impulsive behavior around the Golden Calf. Not commanded. Not desired.
Which comes down to an essential question of how we live our lives today in service of God and others: do we serve them how they want or do we serve them the way we want to, with our own blend of impulsive, selfish, reactive greed, even if our intention is to draw near. The impact is not desired. The impact is not about God or others at all. It reflects our own unwholesome, unwise greed.
Furthermore, we must learn and apply from Sh’mini that we are to practice wise speech and compassion. It is a Mussar Mindfulness practice to consider what you wanted Moshe to say to Aharon in each incident if he were to practice wise speech and compassion. And then apply that wisdom to your own practice and life.
There is something beautiful and special about the relationship between Aharon and Moshe and it reflects to us how we, too, need to be able to take refuge in community to behave from the best version of ourselves.
Thank you to God, our ancestors, our Mussar teachers, and the wisdom of the Buddha and Buddhist traditions for enabling us to share this Torah, this Awakening of Torah through Mussar Mindfulness. May we merit that our learning and awakening of Sh’mini bring comfort and wisdom to all beings and to alleviate the suffering of all beings. Thank you. Shalom, Namaste.
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Podcast Audio Below:
Awakening Nitzavim: Torah Mussar Mindfulness, 52nd Sitting – Mussar Mindfulness with Rabbi Chasya of The Institute for Holiness: Kehilat Mussar
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