What consumed Nadav abd Abihu: a teaching for young and old


By Rabbi Aaron Gol...
May 2, 2012
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“On the Eight day Moses called Aaron and the elders of Israel (Lev 9:1)”

The MidrashTanhuma – thoughts of our ancient Rabbis – teaches: “Beloved are the elders, and if they are young their youth is secondary to them…God ages them [the youth] quickly.”

Rabbi Akiva explains: “Why are the People of Israel likened to a bird? Just as a bird cannot fly without wings, so Israel cannot survive without its elders. The influence of the elders is exceedingly great; if they are old, they are beloved by the Holy One, blessed be God, and if they are young, the children are attracted to them.

Israel cannot survive without its elders – It was Jethro, a non-Israelite priest, Moses’ father-in-law who adviced Moses that he could not manage, judge or lead the Israelites on his own. He suggested – I argue, acting as the first management consultant in history – that Moses appoint layers of judiciary to consider all levels of problems that the people might bring. Only the most serious would come before Moses who, in consultation with God, would act as the Highest Court.

Even the most senior of human beings should not act alone. The Alan Sugars of the business world, the top sports managers, the Government – although as Alan Hunt found out this week, they also risk being ill-adviced! – and the Queen have their advisors. It is good to consult, to collaborate and we usually form sounder opinion, make better decisions and act to the peak of our abilities by doing so.

Sometimes are elders are just that: Those whose wisdom is founded on life experience and the wealth of knowledge and understanding that they have gained. In this Synagogue, the thought of those with experience, those more mature than I am is vital to my rabbinate.

The influence of the elders is exceedingly great; if they are old, they are beloved by the Holy One - Whether it is the Emeritus Rabbi and Rebbitzen, the Preseident and Vice-President or those not holding position now but with years of wisdom on their side, to them I attribute much of any success that the Synagogue and I might achieve. Our senior leaders and members of our Synagogue have been blessed by God and we by having them lead and advice us.

..they are beloved by the Holy One, blessed be God; (and) if they are young, the children are attracted to them – And yet, if we do not harness the enthusiasm, curiosity, energy, creativity, experimentation and risk of the young, will we truly blessed for generations to come? For we know that the young will attract the young.

When we sit back to consider so many of the tensions we face in life, they are related to this conundrum. Our young can be brilliant – here I am certainly not bigging myself up, perhaps though we might do that of Jack this morning, our Bar Mitzvah! Many are the times when our young have physical, mental, and spiritual abilities that are only achievable by those in their earlier years.

Whilst I acknowledge that there is change in society about us, that greater life expectancy is creating a different approach to aspirations and abilities in years perhaps only two generations ago unthought-of; the willingness to experiment and risk is still a trait we tend to experience most in our youth. This willingness, natural, intended or accidental, is how we progress. Letting our young go is one of the most difficult tasks of an adult. There may be many failures along the way but just perhaps, if not today, tomorrow we will see the fruits of their enterprise. It is no surprise that the enterprises of social media and their off-shoots are now overtaking the ‘adults’ of the software and hardware markets in IT, just as those innovations once became giants at the expense of other more physical technologies.

In Jack’s Torah portion this morning, perhaps controversially, I see such an example. We usually understand that Nadav and Abihu, Aaron’s sons are killed by the fire from God that consumed them. I think that it might be possible to re-read this passage of the Torah, just as I have done the midrash I opened with.

The Torah is not always interpreted chronologically and also the ambiguities of Biblical Grammar offer us various translations. We usually translate the phrase, “And fire came forth from the Eternal and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Eternal.” Yet I would suggest that we might translate this: “And fire came forth from the Eternal and consumed them. They died at the instance of the Eternal.” There might still have been a cause and affect but the affect of death may not have been instantaneous and indeed, the text states that they ‘died’ not that they were ‘killed.’

Please allow me to read it in this way, and for a moment accept that the following verses concerning the laws and rituals around the death of a cohen, a priest are merely appended to the text.

From this text I glean advice for both young and old. For the young: It is vital to us that you experiment, you spread your wings, you test your abilities to the extremes. Yet, consider the structures, the boundaries, the laws and customs that have been gifted you. They have served a purpose and that purpose should be analysed before your innovations are expressed. Do not become so consumed by your project that your ignore all the support that is around you, and consider the affect not just on yourself but also on others. The danger is that you might be consumed with regret, recrimination and anger, that you will not then use your brilliance, your ideas and your skills to truly progress society as you have the ability to do.

And for the more mature. We have so much to gift those around us and especially our young. How we communicate our love, our concern is so essential to their enterprise and our own relationship with them. Sometimes we must respond to their seemingly mistaken thought or actions through silence, but at others times it is with words, gentle or firm, that express our wisdom and our desire that our children ultimately, serve God as we have hoped that we have. Let us not lose touch with our youth for lack of good grace and favour, rather, let us nurture and seek to understand the Divine in our young.

Rabbi Akiva explains: “Why are the People of Israel likened to a bird? Just as a bird cannot fly without wings, so Israel cannot survive without its elders. The influence of the elders is exceedingly great; if they are old, they are beloved by the Holy One, blessed be God, and if they are young, the children are attracted to them.

Eternal God, grant us all the wisdom to work together for the betterment of humanity. When we all have thought for working for the sake of God, not merely ourselves, we all act like elders, whether we are young or old. And so may it be for us in our time, that the words of the prophet, Joel (3:1) are realised: “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out My spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.”

http://www.npls.org.uk/Sermons/New/Shmini5772-2.html

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