April 16, 2020

Parshat HaShavua – Shemini

In this week’s Parsha, Shemini, we learn about the importance of mentorship and exemplary followership for newly designated leaders, even those who demonstrated exemplary followership in the past.  In this Parsha, we reach the conclusion of the seven-day ordination process. This leads to Aaron and his sons taking on a new role in the relationship between God and the People of Israel. Having spent seven days demonstrating their understanding of the lessons taught, Aaron is instructed, on the eighth day, to bring sacrifices for himself and for the people. This ceremony is supposed to be the culmination of the ordination process.

Unfortunately, two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, did not understand the core lesson of the seven-day ordination process. While there are those who suggest that Nadav and Avihu were unable to contain their eagerness and enthusiasm – rushing to do the Will of God – their actions suggest that this was not the case. Nadav and Avihu “each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the LORD alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them.” (Leviticus 10:1)

According to Ibn Ezra, “both the burning of the incense and the use of unconsecrated fire were their own idea, not a commandment.” Given this understanding, and if we apply Robert Kelley’s Followership theory to this their actions, Nadav and Avihu do not come across as Exemplary Followers. For them to be Exemplary, we would have to see them working within the provided framework – accepting the limits based on the commandments and lessons and engaging the leadership within those limits to enhance or improve relations with God. 

Rather, it seems like Nadav and Avihu may be encroaching on Aaron and Moses’ leadership – suggesting they know how to relate to God better than Aaron and Moses or at the very least that there was no need to consult with Aaron or Moses before taking these actions (Sforno). This would place them as Alienated followers, as they try to provide a “better” way to accomplish the task at hand.

Fundamentally, it seems like Nadav and Avihu did not understand that, to be a follower one must first accept the authority of the leadership and obey the rules. This was the purpose behind the seven-day ordination process. They failed to learn this lesson. And in trying to honor God in a way He did not want – using unconsecrated fire – they forced Him to relate to their alienating action. Interestingly, it seems that His response is to use their failure and to honor them by killing them with Holy fire, giving their death purpose. 

But what is purpose in their failure and death? After their death, Moses speaks to Aaron telling him that he, and his sons, should not go out to mourn the death of Nadav and Avihu, nor to take the ritual actions of mourning. Moses explains that, if Aaron does mourn, it will not only lead to Aaron’s death, but God’s anger striking the entire community. So Aaron is faced with a fundamental test in leadership – the tradeoff between personal and communal needs. 

And this brings Aaron to the position of leadership – a position in which God speaks directly to Aaron and tells him about the role he and his sons are now taking on. Specifically that the Priesthood requires clear thinking and that they cannot drink wine or other intoxicants when they are to enter the Tent. They are to maintain a clear head that allows them to differentiate between the sacred (acts and sacrifices that will please God) and the profane (those acts and sacrifices which will not be accepted), and between that those who are ritually pure and those who are impure. 

Now, God takes Aaron, as the exemplary follower who demonstrates the skills, discipline, capabilities, and drive to lead the Priests, and places him in a situation where he must demonstrate his leadership abilities and accept the guidance of a mentor under trying circumstance. This situation demonstrates a best-case scenario for the transition from exemplary followership to leadership. This intermediate stage of leadership – leadership under mentorship – is of great importance, as we already learned that Aaron alone was unable to maintain leadership as seen in the case of the golden calf, where Aaron was unable to maintain his position and hold off the people. Now, Aaron, faced with his first major challenge – the death of his sons for their brash act, demonstrates that he is prepared to follow Moses’ advice as he moves into a new position of formal leadership.

It is with this “trial by fire,” in which his own children are killed by the fire of God, that Aaron must accept his role and demonstrate his willingness to lead by example, follow God, and accept Moses as his mentor. And he chooses an act of Exemplary followership – accepting the rule and discipline necessary to act as High Priest in the Tent – thus raising Aaron up to a new level of leadership and concluding the ordination process. 

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