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Accountability & Forgiveness

Parashat Shmini 5781

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Sh’mini, tells the story of four brothers who work together in the family business. It is a business central to the operations of the Israelite community. Two brothers are of one generation, the other two are their sons and nephews. The first generation builds up, while the second, in their zeal, misstep with fatal consequences, getting fired by the Boss.

This is the story, of course, of Moses and Aaron, along with Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu.

The Israelites have completed the building of the Tabernacle while wandering in the Wilderness. All the gifts have been made, and the craftspeople have created a magnificent structure designed so that God can dwell among them. Community members created priestly vestments to be used during festivals and other sacred, sacrificial offerings. As this week’s portion opens, the Israelites are in the final day of an eight-day inaugural festival. The Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting, is now open for business.

Moses, calling out to Aaron, his sons, and the elders, instructs them to make offerings on behalf of the community. They do so, to which Moses declares, “This is the very thing that God has commanded you to do, that God’s presence may appear before you.”[1] Aaron, as High Priest, under Moses’ guidance, moves forward to make the necessary sacrifices and offerings on the altar. The scene describes some serious celebration. As soon as Aaron finishes the various sacrificial rituals, a Divine fire comes forward, consuming the offerings on the altar. All the Israelites see God’s presence, they shout out, and fall on their faces.

God is pleased with this first attempt: Not only have the Israelites done as instructed, building up the Tabernacle according to Divine blueprint, but what happens there, the system of Tabernacle and alter, of priests and sacrifice, works. After all their planning, the launch of this God-Israelite ritual relationship is as it was meant to be.

But then the second generation comes forward. Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, place fire in a fire pan and offer it before God. They were not instructed to do so. A Divine fire bursts forth, consuming both Nadav and Abihu, killing them both, in front of their father and uncle, in front of the entire community. Moses responds with choice words, and Aaron is silent.

The story of what happens to Nadav and Abihu on the eighth day of the inauguration of the Tabernacle is one of those sections of Torah that stands out for its cinematic quality, for the complication of its characters, the expectations each have of one another, and the theological implications. The story is also notable because of its structure. It is retold in the Book of Leviticus, the third book of the Torah, otherwise exclusively reserved for priestly law and communal instruction. In Leviticus we read the laws of Kashrut. It is in this book that we learn that Rosh Hashanah is the 1st of Tishrei, Yom Kippur 10 days later, and Passover on the 14th of Nissan. The Levitical authors tell us to not set a stumbling block before the blind, and to love our neighbors and the strangers who dwell among us. Unless you’re someone like me, Leviticus is not the book you settle in with on a Sunday afternoon over a glass of lemonade. The book does not contain narrative, except for this scene and one other.

Nadav and Abihu are an interruption to the typical material in Leviticus. This week we read a cautionary tale meant to remind us of the importance of the ritual and ethical laws that surround it. This story warns those who cross boundaries. This is a story about consequences and accountability.

In the Biblical world, God instructs and the Israelites do. At the moment the Israelites dedicate God’s dwelling place, Nadav and Abihu violate the bounds, and the consequences are brutal. But that structure should not be surprising. Such is the nature of law: it is coercive. We tend to obey laws out of fear of being caught and punished. And in the most extreme situations, as is told in our story this week, the powers that be can even take one’s life as retribution for a transgression committed. We tell Nadav and Abihu’s story to remind us that we are accountable to the laws set before us. Do not veer to the left or to the right, we are told, or else get zapped.

Without consequences, boundaries are meaningless.

One punishment that was used for generations within the Jewish community is known as nidui or shamta, which was a sort of temporary restraining order placed on a bad behaving individual. If you committed financial malfeasance, if you were rumored to sexually assault and harass others, if you desecrated God’s name, then others in the community were empowered to temporarily ostracize you for thirty-days. You were not allowed to be a part of a minyan, others had to stay four yards away from you at all time, and your family was denied other communal privileges. If, during your sentence, you made t’shuvah, you would be released from your ostracism. If not, your sentence was extended for another month. After that time, if you remained unrepentant, you were excommunicated. Stay inside the boundaries, and you will be fine. Cross the double yellow line, you put the community at risk, and you cannot be allowed to be a part of things.

A Talmudic story is told of a certain butcher and a rabbi. The butcher wronged the rabbi, presumably over some sort of financial transaction. Consequentially, the butcher is ostracized. Sometime within the first thirty days of his sentence, the butcher makes t’shuvah, whereupon the adjudicating rabbi wonders if that means that the butcher can be released early from his sentence. There are political and economic reasons for the community to consider lifting the butcher’s ostracism early. With the butcher shunned, the community has no access to fresh meat. As an expression of authority and accountability, the powers that be do not release the butcher early, and there the story ends. The community will have to do without meat while the butcher finishes his punishment.

Through one lens, this story is an exploration of accountability, collateral consequences, and forgiveness.

We are wrestling these days with similar themes. The Derek Chauvin trial prompts questions about how we as a society are to hold police accountable for brutality and murder. The disclosures of harassment and abuse and harm done by Governor Andrew Cuomo, not to mention the other scandals of malfeasance surrounding him, are flashing alarms that all is not right. Criminal investigations are underway examining the actions of Trump and Netanyahu. Those who organized, promoted, and prompted the January 6th insurrection, are now facing formal criminal charges. Each of these high profile legal cases come back to a question of accountability, safety in the workplace, and the integrity of our society’s institutions. Will each who did wrong be held accountable? And if so, what sort of punishment is justified?

From a Jewish perspective, with the story of the butcher in mind, the question also arises: what role does t’shuvah play in allowing for restoration and a future for all parties involved in these cases of harm? After you have fulfilled your debt to society, what does re-entry look like? The consequences that Nadav and Abihu suffer are absolute. God’s fire and wrath does not stop to ask if the two priests are remorseful. But what of transgressions that we commit today? Is t’shuvah truly available to those who misstep, or are we to cancel and permanently shun anyone who ever does wrong? I have been thinking about this question a lot, but I do not yet have an answer. I hope you’ll join me tomorrow morning at 10 AM for Torah Study, where we’ll dive into some Jewish perspectives on this issue.

Nadav and Abihu commit their sin on the final day when God’s dwelling place is dedicated. Early on, when God first speaks of building the Tabernacle, God instructs, “Make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among you.”[2] The Tabernacle was to be that sacred ground upon which God and humanity meet. That is the goal and aim: to be present at a sanctuary in which God, too, dwells. Recall the words that Moses declared at the start of the festival: “This is the very thing that God has commanded you to do, that God’s presence may appear before you.”[3] Nadav and Abihu desecrated not just God’s domaine, but they violated the relationship with God. They violated the sacred trust given. For that, there were consequences. May each of us, charged with our versions of sacred trust in one another, do all we can to maintain and strive for sanctity each day.

Shabbat Shalom.

[1]: Leviticus 9:6.

[2]: Exodus 25.

[3]: Leviticus 9:6.


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