“The Show Must Go On”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Shemini, the first day of Nissan, the day about which Aaron had been dreaming, finally arrived. The Tabernacle, which had been completed on the 25th day of Kislev, was now ready to be erected. At the same time that the Tabernacle would be erected, Aaron and his four sons were to be invested as Kohanim, priests of Israel.

All the suffering that Aaron had endured in Egypt, the personal mortification that Aaron experienced when the people complained that Moses and Aaron were only making things more difficult for them with Pharaoh, the sin of the Golden Calf for which he was blamed–-all this was behind him, and now what was expected to be the most glorious day of Aaron’s life was at hand.

Unfortunately, this most glorious day was to turn into the most tragic day of Aaron’s life. Wittingly or unwittingly, his two eldest sons, Nadab and Abihu, bring fire pans with a “strange fire” before G-d. A great flame comes down from heaven, consumes them and they die. Moses tries to console his grief-stricken brother by saying that G-d is sanctified by those who are closest to Him, so it must be that G-d really wanted Nadab and Abihu in His presence. Aaron’s reaction was total silence.

We then read in Leviticus 10:12, that Moses calls out to Aaron, and to Elazar and Itamar, Aaron’s remaining sons, and instructs them: “K’choo et ha’Mincha ha’no’teret may’eeshay Hashem, v’ich’loo’hah matzot, aytzel ha’mizbay’ach, kee kodesh kodashim hee,” Take the meal offering that is left from the fire offerings of G-d, and eat it unleavened near the altar; for it is the most holy.

Three he goats were to be offered by the priests as sin offerings on that day: 1) one as a gift of the Prince of the tribe of Judah, Nachshon the son of Aminadav, as part of the series of offerings that were brought by each of the twelve tribal princes; 2) a second sin offering was to commemorate the inauguration of the Tabernacle; 3) the third sin offering was to mark Rosh Chodesh, the new moon of Nissan.

In a baffling development, Aaron and his sons offer the first two sacrifices, those for the Prince of the tribe of Judah and for the inauguration of the Tabernacle. However, when Moses inquires about the sin offering for Rosh Chodesh he discovers that it had been completely burned without the priests partaking of it, as is usually done. Scripture tells us that Moses demands of Elazar and Itamar to know why they did not eat of the sin offering in a holy place. It is Aaron, however, who responds, telling Moses that they did bring the other two sin offerings and burnt offerings. However, after the tragedy struck, would G-d have approved of the priests eating the sin offering on this day? The Torah then tells us (Leviticus 10:20), “Va’yishma Moshe, va’yeetav b’aynav”, Moses heard Aaron’s response and accepted it.

It’s hard to believe that after witnessing his two sons die because they failed to follow the precise instructions of G-d, that Aaron had the temerity, together with his two sons, to once again defy G-d’s instructions, and refuse to offer or to eat of the sin offering of Rosh Chodesh!

Several commentators attempt to explain Aaron’s actions. Some suggest that Aaron concluded that the two sacrifices that had to be brought were the ones that were Horaat Sha’ah, one-time offerings that were to be sacrificed this time only and never again. Therefore the sin offerings of Nachson the Prince and the inauguration of the Tabernacle were offered. However, the sin offering of Rosh Chodesh, which comes every month, does not have to be done in this hour of mourning, since it would nevertheless be observed monthly in the future. Moses accepts Aaron’s explanation.

Moses on the other hand, at least initially, felt that in the service of G-d, “The show must go on!” Leaders must put aside their personal considerations, even heartbreak and mourning, and ensure that the worship of G-d by the people continues properly and meaningfully.

The fact that Moses accepted Aaron’s explanation indicates that there is truth to both sides of the argument. Aaron also understood that there are times that the show must go on, but only when there is no alternative, when there is no possibility for make-up offerings. However, it is entirely justified to cancel or postpone an action, even a public action, when there will surely be other opportunities for the “show to go on.”

Moses however, felt compelled by the other side of the argument. He surely understood that there are times when the show can’t go on, but those occasions should be far and few between. After all, much of life is made up of choices that are often beyond our personal control. Moses was, in effect, emphasizing the need for everyone to master the “art” of making difficult decisions, and to be able to forge ahead no matter the impediments and challenges. In fact, those difficult choices in life are frequently the ones that become the most meaningful when they are finally made and come to fruition.

Many choices in life are not easy, but ultimately prove to be rewarding. I have chosen the path of outreach, devoting my life to teach Jews who unfortunately never had a chance to learn, to try to expose our un-affiliated brothers and sisters to the beauty and joy of Judaism. It may sound glorious, but it is tough. Rejection is frequent.

It is not easy to conduct a weekly Beginners Service, repeating the same basic explanations again and again, trying to make them not sound repetitious. It is most challenging to make a Torah portion interesting for an audience of inchoate Jews, when the Torah speaks in the excruciating detail of the building of the Tabernacle and of animal sacrifices. But the reward is great.

It is also challenging for well-meaning, practicing Jews to have non-observant guests over in their homes on Shabbat once a month, to try to positively inspire them. Unfortunately, many practicing Jews want to quickly finish the meal and get to their Shabbat naps, but their guests continue to ask questions, and the hosts often do not know the answers. It’s uncomfortable! And if we have guests at our home on a regular basis, what toll does it take on our children, who are often shunted to the sidelines?

Aaron said, there are limits, and we must stop. Moses said, there obviously are limits, but this is not the time for limits, we must forge ahead, and redeem every possible Jew.

My vote is with Moses. What is yours?

May you be blessed.

The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Sunday evening, April 4th, and continue through Monday and Tuesday, April 5th and 6th.

Chag Kasher V’samayach. Wishing all our friends a wonderful, joyous and meaningful Passover.

Yom Hashoah is observed this year on Saturday night, April 10th and all day Sunday, April 11, 2010.