Tradition, Torah, and a true friend

The lessons to be learned from this week's parashat hashavua (Torah portion), Parshat Shmini.

A soldier from the Golani Brigade holds a comrade’s hand as he helps him during a 70-kilometre march, marking the completion of their advanced training, at the end of which they receive their brown beret, in 2014 (photo credit: REUTERS)
A soldier from the Golani Brigade holds a comrade’s hand as he helps him during a 70-kilometre march, marking the completion of their advanced training, at the end of which they receive their brown beret, in 2014
(photo credit: REUTERS)
This week’s Torah portion, Shmini, tells us about one of the most festive events on the journey of the People of Israel to the Promised Land: the dedication of the Mishkan (Tabernacle).
This temporary temple accompanied the nation in its wanderings until the Temple was established in its permanent location in Jerusalem. The Tabernacle was where the Divine Presence rested, through which Moses received his prophecies. It was a sort of replacement for Mount Sinai, where the Revelation took place and the nation received the Torah and the Tablets of the Covenant.
The festive event dedicating the Tabernacle lasted eight days. For seven days, Moses dedicated it on his own, and on the eighth day, Aaron the priest and his four sons – Eleazar, Ithamar, Nadab and Abihu – began to serve as priests in it. This was a great day for the entire nation that crowded around it and watched Aaron walk out alongside his brother Moses. Then they both blessed the nation, and immediately a fire came out of the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant containing the tablets stood and burned the sacrifices that were places on the altar.
Then things took a turn. Two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, wanted to work in the Tabernacle even though they had not been commanded to do so.
They took two pans and placed incense on them and brought them into it. The response was severe: a fire erupted from the Holy of Holies and burned the two brothers to death. The nation that had been in a celebratory mood was suddenly witness to this difficult sight, experiencing great shock, and they burst into bitter weeping.
Wondering about the severity of Nadab and Abihu’s punishment, the sages of the Midrash and Talmud asked, “What was the root of their actions? What was their mistake? What was the great sin for which they were so harshly punished?” In the book Safra on the Book of Leviticus, which is also termed the Torah of the Kohanim, we find an interesting explanation that might help us understand the root of the sin and, of course, how we can avoid that same mistake. The midrash says the following about Nadab and Abihu: “…They did not show respect for Aaron nor did they get advice from Moses; they each went on their own and did not consult each other.” (Safra on Leviticus 10:1) Nadab and Abihu had three options to consider moments before they acted: They could have been respectful of their father Aaron and gotten permission from him to burn incense in the Tabernacle; they could have consulted with Moses, the nation’s leader and the one who bestowed the Torah; they could have consulted with one another. They didn’t choose any of those options and instead acted impulsively. Making a quick decision without careful consideration, they did not consult with their father, with Moses, or with each other.
These three options represent three strong foundations upon which a person can lean in order to be sure he is taking the right path.
The first option is turning to tradition. Elsewhere, the Torah directs us to heed our forefathers’ traditions: “Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders and they will inform you.” (Deuteronomy 32:7). Tradition is a combination of the experience of many generations who faced various challenges and recognized better and worse decisions. Tradition encompasses all this life wisdom. Leaning on it is our guarantee that we are making correct choices.
A second option is asking a wise person. Rabbis, spiritual leaders and learned people are a resource of knowledge and insight about the details of a person’s life. The Torah sheds light also on aspects of our lives that it does not deal with directly. Leaning on it also guides a person toward worthy goals and toward wise and moral choices.
The third option is turning to others. A good and loyal friend can benefit us no less than years of experience and deep insight. A person close to your heart knows what you really believe, what your values are, what you aspire to become, where you might trip and fall. The closeness between friends can lead to significant understandings. Through shared closeness, you can find an inner light, beauty, and qualities that had been undiscovered.
These three paths are the key to success in life: tradition, the Torah and a true friend.

■ The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.