The upper levels of command were in a state of shock, without an idea about what to do next except ‘to hold on.’ I was as upset with this as I was with practically every other decision that had been made so far in the war. For me, this was not the time to sit back and allow the Egyptians to build up their defenses. Why should we just wait while they brought the rest of their tank army over the canal? Quite the opposite. We should be pushing them, probing for their weak points, looking for openings to exploit. It is no exaggeration to say that by this time my confidence in the ability of either Southern Command or General Headquarters to read the battlefield properly was down to zero. While most of the senior commanders were happy enough to be containing the Egyptians, for me these days were immensely frustrating. I emphatically did not think we should be on the defensive. I was convinced we had the forces necessary to put an end to the whole thing. But there was nobody to talk to about it.
In this passage from his autobiography, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who passed away a little over two months ago, relives the moments which led up to one of the most controversial decisions of his entire career. On Yom Kippur of 1973, the Syrian and Egyptian armies joined forces and launched a surprise attack against Israel, whose leaders found themselves thoroughly unprepared to respond. It took days before Israeli tanks were finally deployed. By this time, the Egyptians had made major gains in the Sinai Peninsula. Times were desperate; most in the military establishment would have been thrilled simply to emerge from the war without ceding any further territory. But not Sharon. Against conventional wisdom, Sharon insisted that the only way to defeat the Egyptians would be to launch a counter-offensive. Nobody agreed. And so, the Major General took matters into his own hands: he led his troops over the Suez Canal and attacked the Egyptians alone.
Suffice it to say, Sharon’s plan worked. With time, his daring maneuver would come to be recognized as the turning point in the war, and Ariel Sharon would be credited with delivering his nation from the brink of disaster. But for many, the ends did not justify the means. Sharon, after all, had defied orders – he was מסרב פקודה. There could be no greater violation of military protocol. The man the public hailed as “the King of Israel” may have performed brilliantly on the battlefield, but he had acted without being commanded. For that, argued those calling for his dismissal from the IDF, there was just no excuse.
Throughout his life, Ariel Sharon forced us to ask ourselves, again and again: How are we supposed to regard leaders who “do their own thing?” At first glance, this week’s Torah portion seems to censure that sort of behavior in the harshest of terms. Nadav and Avihu, the sons of the High Priest, enter into the Tabernacle and bring incense before Hashem, along with a “strange fire, which He had not commanded them to bring” (Leviticus 10:1). On the spot, “a fire came forth before Hashem, and they died” (10:2). Moses brings the news of the boys’ death to their father – his brother – Aaron. The latter responds with “complete silence” (10:3).
Our commentators debate what precisely took place here. Hazal (סנהדרין נב ע”א) claim that Nadav and Avihu were trying to preempt, perhaps even to usurp their father Aaron, by ministering in the newly consecrated Tabernacle before he had had a chance to do so. Hizkuni ׁׁׂ(ד”ה אשר לא צוה אותם) reads “He had not commanded them to bring” as “He had commanded them not to bring,” and concludes that Nadav and Avihu thwarted an explicit instruction of God’s, more interested in serving Him in the way they desired to than in the way in which He had asked to be served. Rashi (ד”ה ותצא אש), citing the Midrash, notes that the very next commandments which appear in the Torah concern the prohibition of entering the sanctuary while intoxicated, and infers that this was the sin of Aaron’s sons. Malbim (ד”ה ויקחו ב”א ותצא אש) suggests that they brought fire along with the incense because they did not consider God capable of sending His own fire to consume the offering. These are just a few of the many interpretations of this cryptic episode which have been advanced. All converge upon one point: Nadav and Avihu acted of their own accord in a way which was deemed inappropriate. For that, they were punished.
It is easy to read this section of the Torah as a stark warning against ever taking personal initiative in our relationship with God or in whichever leadership capacities we may find ourselves. But if we look closely, we’ll realize that the saga does not end there. Our chapter, as we saw, begins with the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. It finishes with an incident no less enigmatic:
And Moses thoroughly investigated concerning the sin offering he-goat, and behold: it had been burnt! So he was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s surviving sons, saying, “Why did you not eat the sin offering in the holy place…? Behold, its blood was not brought into the Sanctuary within; you should have surely eaten it within the Holy precinct, as I commanded!” And Aaron spoke to Moses… “Now that such things befell me – were I to eat this day’s sin offering, would Hashem approve?” Moses heard, and he approved. (Leviticus 10:16-20)
Had we not known any better, we’d think we were on reruns. At the start of our chapter, Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s two oldest sons, burn something which they were not supposed to burn; at its end, Eleazar and Ithamar, his youngest sons, do the exact same thing. Both pairs of boys ignore the strictures of the sanctuary. Both are sternly criticized by Moses. Neither act, the text emphasizes, “as commanded.” But there is one crucial difference. At the beginning of the chapter, Aaron is “silent” in the face of his brother’s rebuke; this time around, he “speaks.” And indeed, as the narrative draws to a close, we find that a complete role reversal has taken place. Now it is Moses who is listening to Aaron; now it is he who will ultimately offer his silent acknowledgement that what has taken place was correct and just.
There’s a lot to unpack here – much more than we can cover together. Most deserving of comment, though, is Aaron’s remarkable behavior throughout this text. We would assume that a father who just saw his two sons punished because of their misplaced initiative would carefully toe the line from that day forward. Not so. It doesn’t take more than twenty-four hours before he and his sons are repeating the exact same mistake again – except that this time, of course, it’s not a mistake. How, indeed, could God expect Aaron to consume sacrificial meats with the pain of his sons’ death so fresh? He wouldn’t. Aaron knows that this must be the case, even though God never told it to Him. He trusts his intuition and he trusts in God’s fairness, empathy and compassion. And so instead of eating the meat, he burns it. And God consents.
There are, to be sure, some very important differences between the initiative of Aaron and that of Nadav and Avihu. Aaron had been formally appointed as the community’s religious leader. He was older and more experienced than his sons. Their actions thrust them into the limelight, whereas his took him out of it. Before he spoke, he had first silently listened. They, on the other hand, rushed into action without consulting anybody.
Yet perhaps our chapter is not providing hard-and-fast guidelines for how and when it is appropriate to assert ourselves as leaders as much as it is commenting on the sheer complexity involved in taking personal initiative within a communal context. On the very same day, members of the very same family do what appears, at least externally, to be the very same thing – but some are punished for their efforts, and others rewarded. Such are the challenges of leadership. When everyone takes their own initiative, we have pandemonium. When nobody takes initiative, we have paralysis. Either way, intimate the stories of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, we’re playing with fire. But if we succeed, and our initiative was justified, then we have entered into the Holy of Holies.