Leaders or anyone concerned with the welfare of others can find themselves confronting a challenging personal conflict. We saw this recently play out in parsha Shimini. Here, the story of Aaron is an extraordinary narrative illustrating the real tension in trying to navigate the waters between public and personal needs. In parsha Shimini, there was an imbalance between the two competing needs and the cost of doing one at the expense of the other was overwhelming.
Nadav and Abihu, Aaron’s sons are killed because they brought an offering of “alien fire” before God. But instead of grieving as any father would, Aaron is admonished not to acknowledge this tragedy in any way. He is to attend to his sacred duties. The needs of the Kahal outweigh the personal need. So Aaron tries to fulfill his duties as the High Priest, as Moses instructed. Aaron is completely silent, suppressing everything related to this horrific incident. It is only when Moses chastises Aaron’s remaining two sons for improper ritual that Aaron breaks his silence. Aaron yells at Moses, unable to contain the emotion that has been bottled up inside.
Moses was so disciplined, that the needs of the Kahal came before everything else including mourning the loss of the two young men, his nephews, Aaron’s sons. Moses could only see the need to properly perform the priestly service to the Almighty on behalf of the people. But it is not his sons that have been slain. Aaron tried to accede to the demands of his position and do as Moses instructed. He however was unable to maintain the discipline of Moses. But when Aaron broke down and showed his pain, Moses was moved and in an act of humanity consoles his grieving brother.
How often are we overwhelmed when a decision has to be made? Often life confronts us with an “either/or” choice. We do not have the luxury of the “both/and” that we speak of in our theoretical and lofty discussions. So often we judge others by the choices they make, when in fact, they often do not see that there was a choice at all. I recall a profoundly difficult time when this happened to me.
We sat in shock in the hospital waiting area immediately after my mom’s death. My dad started to cry. Then suddenly he sucked it all up, steeling himself to the situation saying, “I have to be strong.” And the tears stopped flowing. I on the other hand, could not “be strong.” I needed to grieve, whatever form that took. I remembered a conversation I had with my mom where she asked me if I would cry for her when she was gone. I did.
The differences in our reactions to her death created a rift between my father and me. I needed to mourn in my own way and I could not do it with someone who was trying to impose such control. How different might our experiences have been if I could have understood the discipline my father was trying to exert upon himself. We might have found strength in each other and maybe even the space to share this profoundly sad moment in much more supportive ways. If instead of harsh judgment, I could have found compassion. If instead of toughening himself for some idealized vision of what it meant to be the head of the household, he could have shared his grief with me. It took me a long time to begin to understand. If only I knew then what I know now.