Friday, April 20, 2012

Shemini

The rabbis often spin mountains of interpretation from one phrase, a sermon from a single nuance or a new teaching from a seemingly insignificant word choice. The story of Nadav and Avihu contains an interesting example in this long list of interpretations.

This week’s Torah portion describes in brief detail the brothers’ sacrifice and death at the “instance of the Lord.” Aaron’s sons bring sacrifices and are then killed. The Torah offers no reason. Rabbis are left to ponder. Some suggest it was because they brought an “alien fire.” Others surmise it was because God had not explicitly commanded this sacrifice. A number even write that they must have been intoxicated even though the story does not mention such an infraction. The prohibition against priests drinking alcohol while offering a sacrifice follows soon after this episode. And so a thin connection is made between the two.

The list of possible interpretations is endless. The young priests were overly ambitious. They sought to usurp their father Aaron’s and uncle Moses’ jobs. Lost however in these interpretations is a focus on the Torah’s word choice. “Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan…” (Leviticus 10:1) It does not say that they took their fire pan. Each stood alone, apart and by themselves, when bringing the offering before God.

Their sin was that they did not pray together. They did not consult each other. They did not even defer to their father. They only saw themselves. They each acted independently. Perhaps this is why they were punished.

I don’t of course believe that death is a fitting punishment for those who lead a solitary existence, whose spiritual pursuits are in the singular. Solitude can sometimes be beneficial. It offers quietude and often much needed inner contemplation. The Jewish contention however is that solitude leads to a death of the spirit. We are never at our best when alone. Even our ideas require others. Otherwise we only hear the agreement of our own voices.

Buried in one of the many recent articles about the sale of Instagram was a comment by their venture capitalist, Steve Anderson. The original idea for the company came from Kevin Systrom. Before funding his venture Anderson insisted that Systrom find a business partner. He worried about the echo chamber of a one-person start up.

Even the greatest of ideas need others to help refine them. If you only talk to yourself about your thoughts and creative impulses then you only hear agreement. In addition if you have been blessed with a healthy dose of self-confidence then too often you hear praise and adulation ringing in your ears. Ideas do not emerge from our minds in perfect form. They are perfected in discussion with others. They are refined by sacred disagreement.
In order for new ideas to become great ideas they require others. This is why professionals need to go to conferences. This is why I travel every summer to Jerusalem to study. There I can sit and talk with colleagues. There the music is not the chords of praise and agreement, but instead those of disagreement and challenge. There, I hope, a few ideas are fashioned into great ones.

Had Nadav and Avihu held one fire pan together their sacrifice might have been received. The fact that it was an alien fire might even have been forgiven. Working together, standing as one, is always better than standing apart. Brothers should be able to stand together, especially when saying thank you to their God.

While solitude is not a sin, greatness is only achieved when two stand as one.

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