Who is Above the Law?
By Linda Zoll
As I explored the varying aspects of this week’s parashah, Shemini (Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47), I found a myriad of interesting and important paths to be examined. I chose to study a path which led me to consider how we teach our children to be the best they can be. The story in this portion tells us that Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, were so impressed with themselves—being the sons of the highest priest among the Jews of that period and the nephews of the greatest prophet of all time—that they presumed to place themselves above the community.
The moment that illustrated Nadab’s and Abihu’s fatal flaw occurred as the ritual sacrifices were being offered to God. Adonai’s instructions to the people were quite specific regarding ways to prepare the unblemished animals and to ignite the sacrificial fires. In their zeal to stand above their peers, Nadab and Abihu added incense to their offering. God immediately responded and both sons of Aaron were consumed by fire. Moses and even Aaron remained silent—choosing not to question God’s decision. Aaron recognized that his sons had to bear the responsibility for having ignored the law.
God’s message is considered by many to have displayed the importance of obedience to God’s law. Some might consider God’s response to a relatively minor infraction to have been extreme. However, when considering the bigger issue, one asks how far away from the law or “ethics” can we stray? Apparently at that moment it was critical for the Jewish people to recognize that God’s commandments as we knew them were to be unalterable.
When one recognizes that at the time of the lesson being exemplified by the death of Nadab and Abihu, we Jews were just beginning the culture of “observance”. The opportunity to “go forth as a light among the nations” was ours to lose. What would the message to the community have been if Nadab and Abihu had been allowed to fiddle with the rules?
Sadly, this lesson remains a necessary rule to announce and restate frequently as modern society continues to test the law’s validity. As financial advisers assume the privilege of promoting their personal cache with little regard for their clients’ trust; as politicians use their power selfishly; as we seek more and more ways to avoid taxes; we (society/the community) must bear the responsibility for our actions.
May we be blessed with wisdom enough to recognize and observe the laws of Torah. May we be blessed with wisdom enough to impart the message of Torah to our children.
Linda Zoll is a WRJ Board Member and a member of Congregation Emanu El Sisterhood in Houston, TX .