Imagine that the moment you’ve been training for is finally here. You’ve spent the last seven days practicing and perfecting everything. Suddenly, halfway through your opening day ceremonies, tragedy strikes and two of your children pass away. Due to the seriousness of your responsibilities, you must continue forward and will not be able to hold a funeral service. They will be buried immediately while you are expected to press on.
Parsha Shemeni, begins with the eighth day in the inauguration of the Mishkan. Today Aaron will be finally assuming his role as the Kohen HaGadol, the High Priest, a much anticipated moment for the Israelites. But as the ceremonies continue, it seems that everything begins to fall apart. Not only do Aaron’s two eldest sons die by venturing beyond the acceptable spiritual boundaries and offering “strange fire,” he and his remaining sons are told that they have to “keep it together” for lack of a better term, and do their jobs.
And Moses said to Aaron and to Eleazar and Ithamar his sons, “Do not let the hair of your heads hang loose, and do not tear your clothes, lest you die, and wrath come upon all the congregation; but let your brothers, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning that the LORD has kindled. And do not go outside the entrance of the tent of meeting, lest you die, for the anointing oil of the LORD is upon you.” And they did according to the word of Moses.ESV Leviticus 10:6-7
Does this seem a bit insensitive considering the circumstances? We know that Moses was not one to shy away from speaking truth in any circumstance, but is it wrong for a father to grieve the loss of his sons? We must remember that Aaron and his surviving sons were just blindsided by anguish in the middle of the very important dedication ceremony. It’s possible that their mental faculties are not able to deal with such a situation as this and yet they have to keep moving forward. If I try to place myself in that same situation, I’m not sure if I’d be able to keep my focus directed where it needs to be.
To make matters worse, a dispute arises over a sin offering just a few verses later. Moses sees that it was not eaten, despite reinforcing the command to eat the offerings that were given that day (Leviticus 10:13-15). Upon the discovery that the goat was completely burned, Moses darosh darash, diligently sought, the answers to find out why. When Aaron gave his reply, Moses was satisfied and saw it as acceptable.
The interesting thing is that there is more than just one offering being given today. It is likely that there were at least three, two of which would only take place once in history; on the day of the Mishkan’s dedication. The one Aaron refused to eat was likely the goat offered on Rosh Chodesh. This was to be a perpetual offering given by each generation at the beginning of each new month. It seems that this is a case where Aaron reasonably deduced proper Torah adherence during a real life situation.
In Judaism, an onen is someone who is in a state of shock, mourning the loss of an immediate family member. In fact, some of the customs, obligations and exemptions of an onen derive from this parsha. The idea where one should not eat the meat of an offering, however, comes from Deuteronomy 26:14 where it states, “I have not eaten of the tithe while I was mourning, or removed any of it while I was unclean, or offered any of it to the dead.”
As the High Priest, Aaron was not permitted to display any outward display of grief, leave the sanctuary to attend any funerals nor defile himself by being in close proximity to a corpse. So he chose to mourn in the only way that he could; he chose to not partake of a regular offering. This seems to be the cause of Moses’ anger. He didn’t understand how one could place a routine sacrifice on a lesser level than the special ones. To him, truth was truth and a command was a command no matter the circumstance. Aaron was facing the raw and bitter emotion of loss and by refusing his portion of the offering, he demonstrated the inner sorrow that he was feeling in the only way that was available to him.
Once Moses talks with Aaron, he seems to have a better understanding of why he chose to make the decision that he did. We see Moses’ humility once more as he agrees with Aaron. What does that mean for us? When do we choose to see truth from another perspective? Is our “truth” so harsh that it can’t be softened in a time when grace and empathy is needed? I think that’s a major problem for Messianics. I understand it from my point of view, so why can’t you understand it from my point of view too? We often forget to take into account that others may be going through something that they can’t express and we get impatient with them. Because after all, we need justification! But when we stop and listen, we see that sometimes the Torah has to be flexible.
Please don’t think that I’m advocating relative truths and broad gaps between the Torah’s fence posts. The only real truth is Elohim. The more we seek Him, the closer we come to understanding those truths. And if truth and obedience can’t make room for real life and real people, I think we’ve missed the point. It wasn’t until Moses listened to Aaron’s reply that he could understand the emotional distress that his brother was in. We need to listen to one another so that we can learn how to effectively take the unchanging truth and the apply it to each, unique situation and individual.
Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!ESV Psalm 133:1