Lashing Out – Parshat Shemini 5782

When does your temper flare? Like everyone, I have my limits. I’ll lose my temper when I have simply been pushed until I cannot contain myself anymore. In these heated moments we’ve all experienced, it’s nearly impossible to offer compassion, space, or understanding as to what others might be feeling. Whether well-founded or not, feelings of betrayal and disrespect block us from seeing the bigger picture, and it can take time to reconcile these feelings. While a temper isn’t a trait we necessarily admire in our leaders, I can take comfort knowing that leaders in the Torah, like Moses, have also let tempers flare.

To change the subject briefly, the Torah provides interesting insight into the grieving process, particularly in the portion we read this week, Parshat Shemini. The parshah begins with the words, “On the eighth day . . .” after the priests have been installed. The text picks up with the narrative of creating a holy leadership team of Aaron and his sons, who unfortunately make an offering without the appropriate directions or intentions and end up losing their lives. Following this tragic story are the laws for making time holy with sacrifices and laws for making our bodies holy by following kashrut (keeping kosher).

In the moments after Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu fail in their roles as priests and die in the process, Moses has a hard time containing his rage. He lashes out at the remaining priests, Eleazar and Ithamar. He questions their frame of mind; he yells at them. Why? Because in this moment Moses cannot be reasoned with. He can only express his rage.

Is it right for a leader to rage publicly? That might be up for debate. But what’s clear is that lashing out doesn’t prove useful. Yes, Moses needed to grieve in his own way, but for his nephews and brother, he really needed to share words of comfort, of understanding, of guidance.

Parshat Shemini brings to life the realities of emotions, and emotions like grief and anger hit each of us in unique ways. It’s a complicated lesson to learn: being able to control our emotions while acknowledging that our emotions need to be let out in healthy ways. But that’s Judaism in a nutshell, being able to hold more than one idea at a time.

– Rabbi Eve Posen

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