Parashat Shemini Lev. 9:1-11:47
by Dr. Jeffrey L. Seif
Years ago, Pink Floyd’s irreverent song “Another Brick in the Wall” caught my attention. Lines like, “We don’t need no education. We don’t need no thought control. No dark sarcasm in the classroom,” followed by the commanding, “Teachers, leave them kids alone!” caught my attention. As a thirty-year college classroom teacher, it gets my attention even now. My job here, of course, is to understand Moses, not Pink Floyd. I mention Pink at the outset, not to attempt to explain him but to note that, in this week’s parasha, Aaron stands up to Moses the rabbi-teacher and, in effect says, says: “Hey teacher. Leave my kids alone!” Really!? Could it be? Don’t take my word for it. Take a look.
In Leviticus 10:16-20, Moses noted that a sin offering was not attended to properly (v. 16) and “snapped at [Aaron’s priestly sons] Eleazar and Itamar” (v. 17). He is heard scolding them, in vv.17-18, with: “Why have you been negligent!?” (My paraphrase.) By way of response, Aaron steps in and says, in effect: “Ok. You’re right. But they did this and they did that. Hey teacher, leave those kids alone!” After he takes up for them, Moses considers his argument and backs off his critique, in v. 20. The back-and-forth between Moses and Aaron makes for a rather odd exchange. Don’t take my word for it; take a moment and read it in the Word yourself. When I did, this odd exchange and moment leapt out and prompted some reflection. What is going on here in the ancient Word, I wondered, and might it have any implications for today’s modern readers?
When one considers how chapter 10 began with Aaron’s two other sons, Nadab and Abihu, invoking God’s ire for not properly attending to the Tabernacle’s particulars, and being summarily executed, it’s understandable that Aaron would be a bit edgy when his other two sons—novice priests, themselves—become the object of Moses’ displeasure, for screwing up a major sacrifice in the Sanctuary. By way of response, one hears Aaron immediately taking up for them to stave off further chagrin. I imagine he’s particularly mindful of the consequences for not adhering to proper Tabernacle protocol, given that the chapter opens with a painful reminder to that effect. So much for face value, now let’s dig a little deeper.
In 9:15, Aaron, himself, was told to offer this offering—with no mention of his sons assisting. While I make room for delegation every now and again, the point is that he was principally responsible for the offering—and thus for the impropriety noted here. Rashi alights upon this and says Moses takes on Aaron’s sons, Eleazar and Itamar, so as not to cast aspersions on Aaron and the dignity of the High Priest’s office. Leaving the merits of this assumption aside, J. H. Hertz says, against the backdrop of the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, “they [all] didn’t deem themselves in a state of purity to share in the solemn rite” (Hertz, Pentateuch & Haftorahs, pp. 447-448). For him, assuming I understand him correctly, brazen disregard is less the issue here, than humility and a general feeling of unworthiness. In short, with Nadab and Abihu’s deaths still very fresh, and the internalized pain very raw, seeing themselves as sinners too, Eleazar and Itamar were reluctant to eat the sin offering. Was this a mistake, even so? Yes. But Moses was satisfied with the response (v. 20), and he moved on.
Before we move on ourselves, let’s consider a few applications. First, the misconception that God is an angry God given to snapping out on every one and throwing folk into hell for every infraction is simply not borne out by even a casual reading of the Mosaic literature. It’s not how Jews see him, and it’s simply not who he is. God is gracious. Secondly, note that motive is more important than motion here: at the chapter’s opening, the priests’ mistake evolved out of a casual indifference toward their priestly tasks—spirited along, perhaps, by their being intoxicated while attending to them; here, at the close, the misstep is spirited along by a very sober reverence—a fear of the Lord. With this as the case, judgment is averted: because God looks at the heart and not just at the fact that someone didn’t do their part.
This good news from ancient Jews is good news for me and yous. There is no word for “yous,” of course; I invented it because it rhymes. I wanted my point to impose itself on your brain and stick there. Why is that? Yeshua beckoned his followers to look deeply and to “not judge by appearance, but judge righteously” (Jn. 7:24). This, of course, comports perfectly with the Torah’s oft-stated premiums on looking into matters deeply, inquiring of particulars diligently and judging people and circumstances righteously. May we all do so in our affairs with others, and recall how our gracious God does so in his assessments of us.
Perhaps Pink Floyd’s kids didn’t need their teacher’s “mind control,” as the rebellious song goes, but we need ours. May biblical faith and virtue grow within us and renew our minds, along with a healthy reminder of the grace of God toward us—something amply attested in this week’s Torah reading.
Jeffrey Seif is available at email@example.com