Tradition, Torah, and a True Friend
This week’s parasha, Shmini, tells us about one of the most festive events on Am Yisrael’s journey to the Promised Land: the dedication of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. The Mishkan was the temporary temple that accompanied the nation in its wanderings until the Temple was established in its permanent location in Jerusalem. The Mishkan was where the Divine Presence rested, through which Moshe received his prophecies, and was a sort of replacement for Har Sinai where the Revelation took place and the nation got the Torah and the Tablets of the Covenant.
The festive event dedicating the Mishkan lasted eight days. For seven days, Moshe dedicated it on his own, and on the eighth day, Aharon Hakohen and his four sons – Elazar, Itamar, Nadav, and Avihu – began to serve as priests in the Mishkan. This was a great day for the entire nation that crowded around the Mishkan and watched Aharon walk out alongside his brother Moshe. Then, they both blessed the nation and immediately a fire came out of the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant containing the tablets stood and burned the sacrifices that were places on the altar.
And then things took a turn. Two of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, wanted to work in the Mishkan even though they had not been commanded to do so. They took two pans and placed incense on them and brought them into the Mishkan. The response was severe: a fire erupted from the Holy of Holies and burned the two brothers to death. The nation that had been in a celebratory mood was suddenly a witness to this difficult sight, experiencing great shock, they burst into bitter weeping.
The sages of the midrash and Talmud wondered about the severity of Nadav’s and Avihu’s punishment and asked – What was the root of their actions? What was their mistake? What was the great sin for which they were so harshly punished?
In the book Safra on the book of Vayikra, also termed the Torah of the Kohanim, we find an interesting explanation that might help us understand the root of the sin and, of course, how we can avoid that same mistake. The midrash says the following about Nadav and Avihu:
“…They did not show respect for Aharon nor did they get advice from Moshe, they each went on their own and did not consult each other.” (Safra on Leviticus 10:1)
Nadav and Avihu had three options to consider moments before they acted: They could have been respectful of their father Aharon and gotten permission from him to burn incense in the Mishkan; They could have consulted with Moshe, the nation’s leader and the one who bestowed the Torah; They could have consulted with one another. They didn’t choose any of those options, and instead acted impulsively. Making a quick decision, without careful consideration, they did not consult with their father, with Moshe, or with each other.
These three options represent three strong foundations upon which a person can lean in order to be sure he is taking the right path.
The first option is turning to tradition. Elsewhere, the Torah directs us to heed our forefather’s traditions: “Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders and they will inform you” (Deuteronomy 32:7). Tradition is a combination of the experience of many generations who faced various challenges and recognized better and worse decisions. Tradition encompasses all this life wisdom. Leaning on it is our guarantee that we are making correct choices.
A second option is asking a wise person. Rabbis, spiritual leaders, and learned people are a resource of knowledge and insight about the details of a person’s life. The Torah sheds light also on aspects of our lives that it does not deal with directly. Leaning on it also guides a person toward worthy goals and toward wise and moral choices.
The third option is turning to others. A good and loyal friend can benefit us no less than years of experience and deep insight. A person close to your heart knows what you really believe, what your values are, what you aspire to become, where you might trip and fall. The closeness between friends can lead to significant understandings. Through shared closeness, you can find an inner light, beauty, and qualities that had been undiscovered.
These three paths are the key to success in life: tradition, the Torah, and a true friend.
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Site