By Rabbi Bonnie Koppell
How hard, or easy, is it for you to say, “I was wrong, I apologize, please forgive me.” For me, and for many of us, it is impossibly challenging to get those words out of our mouths. We rationalize, we defend, we obfuscate, we do anything but take responsibility for our mistakes.
In this week’s parashah, Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47), Moses shows us how it’s done. First, a bit of background: It should have been a moment of joyous celebration. After months of planning, the time has come to dedicate the sanctuary. Aaron proudly stands together with his four sons—Elazar, Itamar, Nadav, and Avihu—who are ready to step into their roles as the priests for the community.
As a sign and symbol of deep humility, they begin the ceremony by offering their own sin-offering before undertaking an offering on behalf of the community. It is always a good practice to look within before we point fingers at others. A precise ritual takes place, the sacrifice is offered, and the people perceive God’s glorious presence. A triumphant moment.
Then, tragedy strikes. Nadav and Avihu are so moved by the events of the day, they take the initiative to place incense on the altar, “esh zara,” an unauthorized fire. A fire of God strikes them down instantly. Joy turns to mourning, and Aaron is reduced to horrified silence.
Does the punishment fit the crime?
The rabbis go to such lengths to justify the deaths of Nadav and Avihu it seems our tradition is as uncomfortable with this terrifying tale as we are.
As a military chaplain for 38 years, I certainly understand the value of following orders. There are opportunities for creativity and the exchange of ideas, and there are moments that call for “Yes sir! Yes ma’am!” Structure and inspiration, keva and kavanah,—each has its place, and the priesthood clearly is a place for following orders. God makes that point, and we, like Aaron, are dumbstruck.
Aaron does not speak. In Leviticus 10:16, Moses berates Aaron’s two remaining sons for not eating the offering they had brought. Then, Aaron finds his voice. He asks Moses if Moses thinks God would appreciate his doing so on a day when such things have occurred? How could Aaron possibly summon the right sense of holiness when he has just watched his two sons die?
Remarkably, Moses backs off immediately. The chapter concludes, “And Moses listened, and it was good in his eyes.” Although it’s not exactly an apology, Moses takes the rebuke to heart. He lets go of his anger, understanding Aaron’s perspective.
The foundation of a real, meaningful relationship is the ability to offer loving and constructive feedback and to be open to hearing gentle criticism from others. It’s a mitzvah not to hate but to rebuke someone when we perceive they are doing wrong: “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him. (Leviticus 19:17)
The art is in how we do so—never in anger, never in public, and never without offering guidance about an alternative direction. And, as we learn from the opening verses of the parashah, it behooves us to look within before we look out at the behavior of others. Rabbi Harold Kushner wisely taught that the four holiest words in the English language are: “I may be wrong.” We should all practice saying them.
The Talmud asks why, in almost all instances, are halachic matters decided according to the school of Hillel rather than the school of Shammai. The answer? Because the school of Hillel always began by listening to the perspective of the other side. Sometimes the simple gift of our openness to listen is all that is necessary to move us toward resolution.
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell served for nearly four decades as a U.S. Army Reserve Chaplain, retiring in 2016. She is the associate rabbi of Temple Chai in Phoenix, AZ, where she also directs the Deutsch Family Shalom Center. Rabbi Koppell is a graduate of the U.S. Army War College.