Rabbi Randy Kafka: It’s all about balance
The Torah is full of sibling stories. Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, just to name a few. Plenty of tension and jealousy, and occasionally reconciliation and respect and even love. Just like in real families.
Precisely at the halfway point in the Torah stands a powerful story of two brothers that is much less well known.
In our cycle of annual Torah readings, we are in the middle of the book of Leviticus, the central of the five books of Moses. The ultimate goal of the Levitical system has been achieved: The sacrificial system is up and running, and the glory of God’s presence descends to dwell among the Israelite people.
However, in the process of making that happen there has been a human tragedy – two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring “alien fire” into the holiest part of the sanctuary without being instructed to do so, and a fire blazes up and consumes them. At the moment of their death, Moses – brother of Aaron – makes a speech to the community, but the Torah says: “Aaron was silent.”
That is usually considered the end of the story, but there’s more. A little later – and here we come to the central point in the Torah in terms of word count – Moses goes out to investigate how Aaron and his priestly family are fulfilling all the sacrificial obligations. Are they continuing to follow all the rules?
Upon discovering that Aaron and his family have not done a certain sacrifice at the right time and place, Moses gets angry and chastises his brother. Imagine the scene: The family has just suffered an unbearable loss, and here comes Moses to point out that they did something wrong in the workplace.
Aaron responds (I am paraphrasing slightly here): “After what I have just been through, losing two of my sons, does God really want this particular rule followed right now?”
Moses hears his brother’s pain, and understands, and this time it is Moses who is silent.
Why is this story positioned in the very center of Torah? Perhaps to teach us that there is a time for striving for perfection in life, and there is a time for compassionate acceptance. In a relationship between mature siblings, there is the possibility of balance between the two.
Yes, you have high expectations of one another’s behavior; and sometimes you will need to set aside your expectations and simply be there for one another with an open heart.
By balancing these two values literally at its center, the Torah suggests that these are core principles – not only for siblings, but for all of us. At a pivotal central point, balance is possible.
Striving for perfection, and responding with compassionate acceptance – both are manifestations of God’s presence into the world.
Rabbi Randy Kafka serves Temple Israel South Shore, an independent Reform congregation in North Easton, Mass. To contact her: firstname.lastname@example.org.