What do you do when you don’t have time for the niceties, for the honors and rites you believe should be offered? You have to make tough decisions.
Moses and Aaron and all the Cohanim and Levites were just about to begin the operation of the mishkan, offering korbanot before the ohel moed as we enter the Torah portion, Shmini (beginning at Leviticus 9:1). We have concluded the set-up, the preparation, the ordination of the right people to do the right job. The mission is set, it is time to engage.
And so they engage and no sooner does it begin that Nadav and Avihu rush in and try to offer their own korbanot in, clearly, not the fashion as laid out in the regulations. They were punished by death for such a breech. What did they do? It’s not clear. Commentators over the years have offered ideas: hubris, improperly kindled fire, whatever. The point is that they didn’t do it correctly. Aaron, their father, when faced with this awful moment famously remains silent. Silent because he doesn’t care? Maybe not. Perhaps he was silent prefiguring modern day shiva tradition where the mourners are allowed to be silent in grief with no obligation to make chit-chat.
But Aaron is admonished. There is work to be done to get the offerings in the mishkan up and running.
I’m writing this as I sit in Manhattan as part of the National Guard’s response to help overwhelmed civilian agencies. I am working in cooperation with the city medical examiner. We are not necessarily interacting with those who are COVID-19 positive but the virus has caused the system to be swamped.
I’m here as a chaplain, mobilized out of my unit in Newburgh, New York (I’m working on my transfer to Pittsburgh). My primary task is to be a pastoral presence to the troops who are under high stress. They need to talk. I’m also here to provide religious services so I put together a socially distant seder (no crowding at the table) and I bought Easter candy while also arranging for a pastor to video in an Easter Sunday (short) sermon. There’s a first time for everything.
Back to Shmini. You can argue if you disagree that the operation of the mishkan is more important than time for Aaron to grieve but within the context of Shmini, the mission of the mishkan was primary and the proper rituals and rites would have to wait. Nadav and Avihu were hauled out by their tunics, Moses tells Aaron that now is not the time to sit in silence and the mission goes on.
This is a terrible situation with hardly a “best” solution but remember this. The operation of the mishkan was for the benefit of the people, all of the people. It was designed to have the Israelites and God connected and thus protected. Proper functioning was for the benefit of all. One man’s grieving can hardly equate to the safety of the entire population. I don’t say that cavalierly. I say that as an objective reality.
Our work here is not easy but it is holy work. If we were to slow down or even pause this mission so that full and proper rites could be offered, other people would be neglected. I am impressed with the professionalism of the civilians and military members I meet who do their best to bring dignity to a process most of us don’t want to think about. Still and all, there is a certain tempo that must be maintained. It isn’t rushed but it isn’t slow either.
The streets and highways are all but deserted. We think nothing of running up to the Bronx and back. The farthest of Far Rockaway is 40 minutes. So our troops head out and do their holy work, finish a 12-hour shift, eat dinner, fall into bed. We are the first step in a process that must be done. There will be rituals and rites that others will offer in days or weeks to come. Families will take care of that. There is a proper conclusion to our work. We will never see it.
My condolences upon the death of Nadav and Avihu, Aaron. I truly mean it. But there is a whole thing going on as the mishkan and ohel moed mission is spinning up and there are so many other people to take care of. Baruch dayan ha-emet. My team is ready to head out. I gotta go. PJC
Rabbi Larry Freedman is the director of the Joint Jewish Education Program. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.