Sedra: Shemini

Sedra: Shemini

With Rabbi Yisroel Newman

On the day that the Tabernacle in the desert was erected and Aaron’s four sons were inaugurated as priests, the two oldest children entered into the tabernacle and did not come out alive.

The Talmud relates the following story to explain the cause of their death: “It once happened that Moses and Aaron were walking along the road and Nadav and Avihu (Aaron’s two sons) were walking behind them, and all Israel was walking behind them. Said Nadav to Avihu: “When will these two old men die and you and I will lead the generation?’ Thereupon God said to them: “We shall see who will bury whom!’”

Now, this story of Aaron’s two sons engendered a cryptic Midrash. It reads like this: “When Job heard about the death of the two sons of Aaron, he was seized by tremendous fear.”

Why did the Nadav-Avihu episode inspire such profound fear in the heart of Job?

The Talmud relates that Job served on the team of advisors to Pharaoh, the emperor of Egypt. The other members of the team were Balaam and Jethro. Pharaoh, struck by the fear that this refugee group would ultimately pose a threat to his empire, consulted his three advisers on how to deal with the “Jewish problem”.

Balaam chose a tyrannical approach. Job remained silent. He neither condemned the Jews to exertion and death, nor defended their rights to life.

Jethro was the only one among the three who objected Balaam’s plan of oppression. To escape the wrath of Pharaoh, who enthusiastically embraced Balaam’s “final solution”, Jethro fled from Egypt to Midian, where he lived for the remainder of his years.

What went through Job’s mind after this incident? Did Job consider himself morally inferior to his colleague Jethro who, in an act of enormous courage, stood up to a superpower king and protested against his programme of genocide? Did Job return home that evening and say to his wife: “I discovered today that I am a spineless and cowardly politician who will sell his soul to the devil just to retain his position in the government”?

No. Job, like so many of us in similar situations, did not entertain that thought even for a moment. On the contrary, Job considered himself the pragmatist and Jethro the idiot.

For decades, Job walked the corridors of the Egyptian palace saturated with a feeling of self-righteousness and contentment – till the day he heard of the death of the sons of Aaron.

Job was astounded. “I can fully understand,” Job said, “why Nadav was punished. It was he who uttered these disgusting words. But why was his brother Avihu punished? He did not say anything.”

“Avihu?” came the reply. “He was punished, because he remained silent.”

This teaches us that when something important is happening, silence is a lie.

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