Thoughts on Parashat Shemini

Pesach, the festival of freedom, has just ended. The concept of freedom is inextricably linked to the concept of choice. Life brings choices before us, maybe not all the time, but it does at least bring us in a position to choose. There are small choices and big choices. Small choices are usually easier to make because the consequences are less significant. The big choices entail bigger consequences – sometimes even entailing suffering, and thus, they are significantly harder to make. The inherent problem is of course that our knowledge about the future is  limited and yet we have to make the choice.

We never have completely reliable recipes about what we should do at a given moment because of those two facts: that our life requires choices made on time and that we never have complete knowledge about the future to make sure our choices are right. We cannot wait infinitely for this knowledge, because we have to make our choices on time, so the quality of our knowledge is dependent on the time we are given to gather the data and create a theory. We have the entire spectrum of attitudes towards life – we have people who value security above everything else and we have people who cannot live without taking risks. Additionally we have a duality of attitudes, there are those who act patiently, not because they are afraid of losing security, but because they deeply think over consequences of any act and people who act quickly and move on because they don’t care or believe that they know everything and action is the higher value. We can multiply these overlapping dualities. The core problem is that we don’t have objective criteria to judge which attitudes are correct and which are not. I agree that to be an educated risk taker might be the best choice from all the above, but we usually know it post-factum, basing on the outcomes of certain decisions.

This week’s Torah portion describes the tragedy of the death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu. Both of whom died as a result of offering a “strange fire before God, which He commanded them not (to offer.)” Aaron fell silent in the face of what had happened, but Moses seemed to overreact: he was both angry because of what had happened and at the same time afraid of a possible recurrence of this tragedy. For this reason he decided to be extra careful to the extent that he forbade Aaron to perform a mourning ritual over his sons:

And Moses said to Aaron and to his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, “Do not bare your heads and do not rend your clothes, lest you die and anger strike the whole community. But your kinsmen, all the house of Israel, shall bewail the burning that the LORD has wrought. And so do not go outside the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, lest you die, for the LORD’s anointing oil is upon you.” And they did as Moses had bidden. (Leviticus 10:6-7)

Later we have a series of instructions on sacrifice procedures and a debate between Moses and Aaron on this subject. This story gave rise to an extensive rabbinical debate on all issues related to this incident, from the causes of the accident, to practical conclusions on how to deal with similar situations in the future. Without going into details, both the Bible and the Rabbis agree that Aaron was right: He was forbidden to rend his clothes as a sign of mourning but he was not obliged to force him to rejoice. The sacrifice does not bring the worshipper nearer to the Divine automatically without being accompanied by the proper state of mind. This would mean that if there had been other priests, besides Aaron, and his two remaining sons, Itamar and Eleazar, to perform the duties, they wouldn’t have to continue making those sacrifices.

What we can learn from this story is the fact that we are right when it comes to analyzing the causes of a given situation does not necessarily mean that we are right about how we should deal with its outcomes. Our knowledge is always limited and it is often best to assume that OTHER PEOPLE KNOW SOMETHING WE DON’T. Let’s face it, this is why we often have different opinions. Let’s face it, we only know what we know – should we not be open to knowing … learning … what other people know? THIS IS the Talmud.

What we learn from this story is that being extra careful is not always good. The philosophy behind “better safe than sorry” can have negative effects, especially if fear, anger or any other strong emotions are involved.

Another very relevant consideration when it comes to restricting freedom is the inherent rebellion of man. Being overprotective and going too far with restrictions can do more harm than good. This is particularly relevant today with our stay at home “orders.” As a society, for our government, it is crucial to weigh the consequences of societal actions in a complete context. Specifically, when we talk about Covid stay at home restrictions and discussions of opening up society, we have to be very careful in putting restrictions on people and on humanity. This is not a “economy vs life” discussion, as any thoughtful thinker can see. The belief that by putting strict restrictions on people you can produce submission is not founded in human psychology or in history. We know from history, heck, anyone who has raised a teenager knows, if you place arbitrary restrictions on a soul they will rebel. Anyone that saw communism fall in the 90’s know that if you place arbitrary restrictions on society they will rebel. They will rebel for various reasons but the bottom line is being forcibly deprived of freedoms is not a natural state and unless you are trained and beaten down by a … communist society for instance, humans will not submit. The moment “the people” realize that the restrictions are not essential and even arbitrary they are bound to react and see all restrictions as arbitrary and worthy of rebellion and this will have tragic consequences, especially now when the stakes are so high. That’s the reason the proper balance is always important. The proper approach to this matter is to have a clear, understandable and justified set of rules and a good and effective system of enforcement.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski

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