Parshat Shemini

Torah Reading for Week of April 12 – April 18, 2009

“The Responsibility of Nobility”

by Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, PhD
AJRCA President

The strange circumstances surrounding the death of Nadav and Avihu, as described in Parshat Shemini, find our commentators taking two opposite views. On the one hand, there are those who condemn them as sinners, plotters, men of irreverence. On the other hand, some of the m’forshim see Nadav and Avihu as men of noble motives and saintly characters.

According to the latter view, the crime which they committed was a small one, but the punishment they incurred was a grievous one because they were great men. Judaism is a spiritual democracy; everyone stands equal before the Lord. But often those who are in a more responsible position bear greater responsibility for even small offenses. As the Torah says: “Even those who are to approach the Lord, they too, must be sanctified.”

All too often we find Kohanim who preach and teach to others a way of Jewish loyalty and action, while they themselves fail miserably in consecrating their own household. The Talmud speaks of Chanina the well-digger who dug wells for all others, but his own son died of thirst. Some of our greatest public noble men and women have failed to influence their own children to show the slightest interest in the very causes they have shouted about.

As Jews we have a unique responsibility in the world, to sanctify G-d’s name and to uplift the world through our holy deeds. We are to wear the garments befitting our position and we must never minimize our role and our influence upon others. ‘Kohayn Gadol shelovash bigday kohayn hedyot avodoso p’sulo.’ (Sifre)—‘A Kohen Gadol who dresses in the clothing of a regular Kohen, his service is deficient.’ If we do not bear our responsibilities commensurate with our position, with our calling in life—our efforts will be less than what they can and are supposed to be. This is one of the significant meanings of the doctrine of the ‘Chosen People.’

For G-d says: bikrovei ekodaysh. G-d is sanctified by those who are close to G-d, when their deeds are worthy and they are respected in the eyes of the people. In our everyday activity, in the little things of life, we must keep this in mind. We are all familiar with the oft-repeated criticisms against the Jewish people with regards to lack of sincerity, hypocrisy, etc., especially when our prominent leaders or spiritual guides fall short of the ideal. When we keep this in mind we can see how great our responsibilities are.

And on the world scene, this is also true. On April 29th we will celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut. In these stressful days we have seen how sensitive we are to every detail that takes place in Eretz Yisrael which would ordinarily pass unnoticed by us in other nations. This is because we recognize our special responsibilities as a Holy Nation and that it is incumbent upon us to sanctify G-d’s name in everything we do, and G-d forbid when we as fallible human beings fall short, we are judged by harsh, idealistic, and sometimes unfair standards. It is this way because in our eyes Israel has a unique role and a unique destiny to fulfill in history. She, too, has been called upon and will be called upon to live the life of the responsibility of nobility!

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