Courageous Leadership means Courageous Leaders | Parashat Shemini

Rabbi James Bennett | Congregation Shaare Emeth, St. Louis, USA

In the midst of the global challenge of the CoVID 19 pandemic, our Torah portion, Shemini, could not be more relevant. The ancient wisdom of the Torah reminds us of the dangers of arrogance, haughty self-interest and selfishness, disregard for communal welfare, and the absence of wise and courageous leadership in the face of grave danger.

In this familiar and troubling tale, Moses and Aaron, having completed the building and consecration of the Tabernacle, bring the offerings commanded by God to the altar in the Tent of meeting. God responds by consuming the offerings in fire. Moses and Aaron are pleased and bless the people. The people are moved and awed and fall on their faces in celebration.

Nadav and Avihu, two of the sons of Aaron, themselves newly ordained, budding priests, are seized by the fervor of the moment and leap to action, grabbing their own personal implements and making an offering that has not been authorized, a strange or alien fire. Instantly, God consumes them in fire. Moses says “This is what God meant when God said that through those near to me I will make my holiness known.” And Aaron is silent.

On the surface, many have suggested, Nadav and Avihu played with fire and literally got burned. Some say that they sinned, offering a sacrifice that was either not authorized, or, perhaps, expressly forbidden. Regardless, the rabbis seek to find justification for the death of Nadav and Avihu and there seems to be no consensus.

While it is easy to blame these young men for their refusal to heed the warnings and the rules, there are many other ways to read this ancient wisdom. Indeed, as we reflect on the many who have earned communal disdain during the pandemic for their refusal to heed the warnings and rules of physical distancing, we should remember that the absence of clear, wise and courageous leadership then as now must be acknowledged. Those in positions of authority who refuse to publicly and clearly articulate the dangers confronting the public health in a timely fashion ought bear at least some of the guilt of a crisis.

Moses seems to say just this when he reminds Aaron of the lessons that they sadly learned from their tragic loss. Aaron’s silence bears witness to his own sense of responsibility.

Torah’s wisdom cries out to us today as well. As we watch so many deaths that could likely have been prevented by courageous and wise leadership, planning, effective communication and foresight, we learn from the experience of generations before us. Holiness and Responsibility walk hand in hand. We pray that we can learn the lessons of Torah before it is too late.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).