One of the most painful and challenging stories in the Torah is that of strange death of the sons of Aaron, the High Priest.
Aaron’s role was to bring sacrifices on behalf of the people. He would wear special clothes, and carefully and precisely make the offering. His sons, Nadav and Avihu bring a burnt offering on their own, without being asked.
They were literally playing with fire. Their actions do not end well. A fire consumes them.
Why they died has been debated. Some blame them for doing something they had no permission to do. Others say it was just the tragic, but accidental result of people trying to do something they were not trained or qualified to do.
I want to focus on what happens after. God tells Aaron not to mourn, but to return to his duties. The people would mourn instead.
This sounds cruel, but I think it might be kind on God’s part.
God is telling Aaron and the people that Aaron was not at fault about his sons, and that he is still qualified to be a leader and fulfill his duties. The people should realize that Aaron is human and in need of comfort from his people. God does not want Aaron to hide in grief or shame.
We often blame ourselves for the behavior of others, particularly family, when something bad happens. We go from feeling bad to feeling responsible to blaming ourselves.
The Torah is saying that a lot of people, including our loved ones, do destructive things to others and to themselves, but that it is not our fault. We can try to help as much as we can, but ultimately the ones who cause the harm are responsible for their actions.
We are entitled to live our own lives. We do not have to sacrifice who we are because of the decisions of others. We do not have to make our selves a victim.
It also means we have to let other people help us. Aaron may have sealed himself off from the people. God wanted him among the people because he knew that Aaron’s sorrow could only be healed if he allowed others in, instead of trying to solve all his problems himself.
We read this story between Passover and Shavuot, the giving of the Torah. God is telling us that real liberation can only begin when we stop blaming ourselves for the bad decisions of others. We must realize we can try to make things better, but that we cannot fix everything, and that we are entitled to live our own lives. Only then will there be room in our hearts for the wisdom and compassion that God wants for us.