“The Responsibilities of Leadership”
(Revised and updated from Parashat Shemini 5761-2001)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In the opening chapters of this week’s parasha, parashat Shemini, Moses summons Aaron, Aaron’s sons and the elders of Israel to participate in one of the most exalted ceremonies in Jewish history, the inauguration of the Tabernacle and the consecration of Aaron and his sons to serve as the priests of the People of Israel.

According to tradition, the מִשְׁכָּןMishkan, the Tabernacle, had been built and completed on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev, coinciding with the future date of the celebration of Chanukah. Starting from the twenty-third of Adar, Moses, serving as the temporary High Priest, practiced each day, for seven days, erecting and taking down the Tabernacle. Moses also served as the interim High Priest during the sanctification of the new priests and the dedication of the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle was finally erected permanently on the first day of the month of Nisan, at which time the Kohanim (priests) assumed their new roles.

The inauguration day was the day for which Aaron had longed, for his entire life. After enduring the travails of slavery in Egypt as well as the momentous revelation at Sinai, Aaron could finally feel proud of what he had accomplished.

Leviticus 10:1 describes the initial ceremony: וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ קְטֹרֶת, וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי השׁם אֵשׁ זָרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם , And the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Abihu, each took his fire-pan, put fire on them and placed incense on it, and they brought before G-d an alien fire that He had not commanded them.

Scripture (Leviticus 10: 2-3) goes on to describe: And a fire came forth from before G-d and consumed them [Nadav and Abihu], and they died before G-d. Moses said to Aaron: “Of this did G-d speak saying: ‘I will be sanctified through those who are nearest me, thus will I be honored before the entire people.’” And Aaron was silent.

On the greatest day of Aaron’s life, tragedy strikes. Aaron’s two oldest sons are dead and Aaron remains silent.

Many theories are proposed by our commentaries as to why Nadav and Abihu met this tragic fate. There are those who say that Nadav and Abihu were arrogant, and truly sinful, and deserving of death. Others say that they were so pure and holy, that they needed to be taken away from a world polluted with evil.

Some commentators suggest that the strange fire that Nadav and Abihu offered was intended to fulfill a personal urge they had for their own self-expression. After all, every person has a right to self-expression, but apparently not when serving as a Kohain. Those serving as Kohanim, dressed in the priestly garments, are limited by the rules of the Priesthood, and all their actions must be directed to serve purely on behalf of the People of Israel. Personal needs and desires for self-expression have no place here.

The tragic story of Nadav and Abihu teaches that despite the privileges and glory that come with leadership, responsibility is a basic part of leadership as well, and responsibility, perforce, results in limitations.

Over the past fifty years, America has seen a significant diminution of confidence in its leaders. Support for, and confidence in, both the presidency and the Congress has reached new lows. Many attribute the loss of respect and confidence to the leaders’ own actions and behaviors. They have ceased to act as leaders, and have been increasingly acting as “regular guys.” That sad reality has resulted in the demeaning and “defining down” of the Office of President and the role of Congress.

Many contemporary social philosophers see validity in separating the questionable personal lives and actions of public officials, from their public lives. Judaism does not see it that way. Those who serve in leadership roles have responsibilities. If they do not wish to abide by those responsibilities and high moral standards, let them not assume leadership roles.

There’s wisdom in parashat Shemini. Wisdom not only for the ancients, but for all generations, past, present and future. Leadership requires responsibility. Leadership results in limitations. Face it, or flee from it!

May you be blessed.

Please note: The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Tuesday night, April 14th, and continue through Wednesday and Thursday, April 15 and 16, 2020.

Chag Kasher V’samayach.