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The Challenge of Leadership

This week’s Torah portion begins with an account of the celebration taking place on the inaugural day of Aaron and his four sons into the priesthood, as Kohen Gadol and Kohanim respectively. It began as a glorious day in the nation’s history. The Mishkan would now be fully serviceable to support the spiritual growth of the people.  We are told, “Moshe and Aaron came out of the Tent of Meeting and blessed the people. A fire came down and consumed the offering. All the people saw, sang praises and fell on their faces.”

Yet right after that spectacular moment, two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, offered a “strange fire” before Hashem. This offering was called “strange” since it was not commanded by God. It was not to be part of the service in the Mishkan. It was an unauthorized innovation by Nadav and Avihu. As a consequence to their actions, “A fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed them and they died before the Lord.”

In consolation to Aaron, Moshe tells him, “This is what the Lord spoke when He said, ‘I will be sanctified through those near to Me, and before all the people will I be sanctified.’” Rashi explains that Moshe is conveying to Aaron is that he thought this high level of sanctification would take place by one of them, through himself or by Aaron.

But we must ask, why such a severe consequence for their performance? Our sages offer two approaches to this question. Either they were intoxicated at the time, or they decided to bring this fire without first taking consultation with their teacher, Moshe. The sages in their explanations, however, do not attribute a bad or negative motivation to Nadav and Avihu’s actions. On the contrary we can assume they only intended to enhance the inaugural ceremony.

A fundamental teaching in Judaism is that the righteous are judged by different standards than ordinary mortals. Rabbi Soloveitchik writes, “Responsibility is always measured by the greatness of the person. God told Moses to speak to the rock to bring forth water but he hit it. For an ordinary person this would not have been a sin or if it was a sin the person would not have been punished the way Moshe was. Because Moshe was the leader, he should have been more careful.”

A very significant lesson is taught here. Leaders must be extremely careful in the exercise of their leadership. The attendant responsibility they have toward those they lead is great. Clergy have a responsibility to their congregants, supervisors to their charges, teachers to their students, and parents to their children. Anyone who is in the position of authority and responsibility over the lives of others must take this position very seriously. Leaders are not judged by the same standard of strictness as those they lead.

This rule not only applies to individuals but to nations as well. Which modern nation is held to the highest ethical standards even when it comes to defending itself from existential threats and annihilation? The nation of Israel. Unheard of in the annuals of warfare, before Israel even defends itself, its military warns the enemy civilians of pending attack, giving them the opportunity to evacuate to a safe area. Yet, when its enemies purposely stage attacks from within schools and hospitals or savage terrorists hide behind innocent hostages, who is condemned by the world?

Remarkably, the country of Israel has been condemned and cited for more human rights violations by the UN Human Rights Commission than any other country in the world including North Korea, China, and Cuba not to mention a host of Moslem run countries in the Middle East and Africa. Why is that? This extreme reaction is in fact a backhanded tribute or recognition. Israel represents to the world the highest level of ethical behavior. It is expected to live up to impossible standards.  The slightest error by Israel is magnified many times out of proportion.

The Kohanim had leadership responsibilities in the nation of Israel. They were to be the nation’s teachers and judges. But their most obvious role was in their appointment to be the custodians of the Temple. The entire nation could come to the Temple at any time and see them in this function. They were to inspire the people with awe and love of God while in their service at the Temple. Many of the legal requirements that determined whether or not a Kohen could participate in the Temple service (age or physical appearance for example) revolved around the Kohen’s ability to inspire people when they entered the Temple.

In this function, service to Hashem in the Temple cannot tolerate the slightest deviation from the prescribe commandment. Aaron and his sons had the heavy responsibility to model this unwavering loyalty to the sanctification of God’s name by carrying out His command precisely as prescribed. God’s command was the only determinant in their duties at the Temple. Thus, performance of the Temple service demanded full cognitive awareness, hence no intoxication; and if not sure what to do, consult and discuss with an authority before engaging in any of its performances. The Talmud teaches, “When it comes to the desecration of God’s name, we show no respect to any Rav.”

May we strive to live up to this high standard in our daily lives and interactions with all people. In that merit may Hashem bring enlightenment for peace to the world’s leaders and continue His protecting care over Israel, the Jewish people, and God-fearing people the world over.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan

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