SALT - Thursday, 20 Nissan 5778 - April 5, 2018

  • Rav David Silverberg
In memory of former IDF Chief Rabbi
and leading rabbi of Religious Zionism, Avichai Rontzki z"l
            Parashat Shemini tells the tragic story of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s two older sons, who were killed by a heavenly fire after bringing an unwanted incense offering on their first day serving as kohanim after their seven-day consecration.  Chazal, in many different contexts, attribute to Nadav and Avihu a variety of different wrongs which contributed to their deserving of such harsh punishment.  One such passage appears in Masekhet Sanhedrin (52a), where the Gemara tells a very disturbing story which seems to reflect these brothers’ brazen, youthful arrogance: “Moshe and Aharon were walking along the way, and Nadav and Avihu were walking behind them, and all of Israel behind them.  Nadav said to Avihu, ‘When will these two elders die, and you and I will lead the generation?’”  Nadav and Avihu were guilty of no less than wishing for Moshe and Aharon’s death so they could assume the joint mantle of leadership.
            Rav Yosef Salant, in his Be’er Yosef, suggests mitigating Nadav and Avihu’s guilt somewhat, by ascribing noble motives for their inappropriate anticipation of Moshe and Aharon’s death.  He draws upon the Gemara’s emphasis on Nadav and Avihu’s desire to lead “the generation,” which might indicate that they were especially eager to serve that particular generation of Am Yisrael.  Rav Salant explains that Nadav and Avihu perceived leadership not as an opportunity to assert authority and exert control, but primarily as an opportunity to grow.  When the generation is righteous, he writes, then the leader is able to grow and rise to great heights by virtue of his position.  Accordingly, Nadav and Avihu passionately and impatiently longed for the opportunity to lead that generation, the generation which beheld God’s miracles and experienced the Revelation at Sinai.  They understood that leading a generation of righteous people would enable them to achieve the higher levels of spiritual greatness which they desired.  Just as Nadav and Avihu inappropriately offered an unwarranted incense offering in their passionate zeal to serve the Almighty, likewise, they inappropriately looked forward to the death of their leaders so they could assume their position and rise to great heights.  Thus, although they certainly spoke inappropriately in wishing for Moshe and Aharon’s passing, a sin for which they were severely punished, they spoke these words out of a genuine desire for spiritual greatness, a desire which, in and of itself, we can admire and learn from.
            Rav Salant’s novel reading of the Gemara’s comment reminds us that a leader’s role in not only to guide and instruct, but also to grow together with those under his or her charge.  Whether its parents raising their children, teachers instructing their students or community leaders guiding their constituents, they must use their position of leadership not only to steer others, but also to steer themselves, to join together with those they are leading in the pursuit of growth and self-improvement.  The process of teaching cannot be separated from the process of learning; to the contrary, we must seek to learn and grow as we seek to guide and inspire others to learn and grow.