We must join together in the struggle to figure out how to do what is humanly possible to confront a threat to our world.
As I write this, we’re awaiting a horrific week of growing casualties from COVID-19, with the hope the deadly virus will begin to peak.
As you read this, you may think it was wishful thinking, or maybe, just maybe, there will be a visible glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel. That glimmer will come thanks to all those who socially distanced themselves and because of the brave healthcare professionals and other workers who risked their own health and well-being to keep others from dying and to keep our country afloat.
This parshah surrounds a tragedy that occurs toward the middle of the portion: As Aaron’s sons offer a fire to celebrate the dedication of the Sanctuary, they are struck down by God, right in front of their father Aaron (Leviticus 10:2). Stunningly, while Aaron is speechless, Moshe thinks he knows exactly why Nadav and Avihu were struck down: “Oh, that’s what God told us. I will be sanctified by those who are most holy.” Moshe probably was attempting to comfort Aaron, but he certainly comes across as too sure of himself — almost heartlessly too sure of himself.
Just a few verses later, Moshe learns there is no place for that certainty in a world filled with sadness and tragedy. The operative words happen to be the very middle of the portion and the two words are darosh darash, which can mean either “demanded” or “struggled to understand.” Just like a rabbi’s sermon is called a drasha, it, too, can either be a demanding harangue (old school), or a nuanced exploration of a difficulty (new school). Moshe starts out in the demandingly certain way he was just a few verses before, demanding the remaining sons of Aaron offer the new moon sacrifices along with the dedication sacrifices as if nothing had happened.
Yet, by the end of the aliyah, Aaron is able to get Moshe to see that God’s darosh darash is not about certainty and demands; rather, it is about struggling to figure out God’s will.
Aaron says, “With the tragedies that happened to me today do you really think that eating the new moon sacrifice would be good in the eyes of God?” Aaron gets Moshe to understand the struggle to figure out what God wants from us, especially in times of tragedy.
Moshe, our humble teacher, is able to realize his mistake of certainty, and in verse 20: “Moshe understood (Aaron and his children) and he realized that what they did was the right thing.”
In this era of pandemic, we all must struggle to do what is right in the eyes of God — but what is that? We must join together in the struggle to figure out how to do what is humanly possible to confront a threat to our world.
If we can learn from Moshe to have the humility to recognize our tradition is about struggling to figure out what is not simple or obvious, then we will, God willing, see a path forward.
Asher Lopatin is rabbi of Congregation Etz Chaim in Huntington Woods and Oak Park and the executive director of the JCRC/AJC.