Parshat Shemini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47, Numbers 19:1-22
The Associated Press ran a story some time ago of Andre-Francois Raffray. More than 30 years ago at the age of 47, he worked out a real estate deal with a certain Jeanne Calment, who at that time was 90 years old. He would pay her $500 each month until her death so that he could secure ownership of her apartment in Arles, France. This is a common practice in France and benefits both the buyers and the sellers who are on a fixed income.
Unfortunately for Raffray, Jeanne Calment had become the world’s oldest living person. Still alive in 1995 at the ripe old age of 122, she actually outlived Raffray who died in 1995 at the age of 77. When all the payments were tallied, he paid her $184,000 for a place he never lived in. Now to make matters worse, the contract stipulated that Raffray’s survivors had to continue the payments until Mrs. Calment died.
It’s one of those truths that life has built-in hazards that are both unforeseeable and unpredictable. Being in a certain enviable position at any given time may look good but, sometimes another gets to sit in your chair, someone else gets to wear the good-looking clothes, another gets to wave your banner.
The fate of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu is already foretold in Parshat Tetzaveh (Exodus 24:20-30:10). In it, the author describes how Aaron and his four sons put on the finery of priestly clothing, described by God, to perform their duties at the altar at the courtyard of the mishkan. It was an enviable position to be in. After all, the priestly class (cohanim) was closer to Moses than any other group of people. Nepotism and family dynamics fueled the order of priestly succession. The cohanim would receive perks and show favoritism. No one was closer to God except for Moses. Not since the start of Genesis, when God made clothing for Adam and Eve, would a whole tribe of people sport the threads of the Almighty One.
Nadav and Avihu’s attempt to bring “strange fire” at the end of the miluim (invocation) ceremony demonstrates how suddenly the privileged life can come crashing down. For some reason, they saw themselves as exempt from some of the priestly regulations that were applicable to other cohanim and to the regular Israelites in the camp. They let the high station of the office allow them to cheat, lie and make up their own rules. They left the boundaries of their own reality. In our parlance, they went out of their heads.
When people look at the cohanim, there is an assumption of the kind of people they are. They are dutiful, obedient to God. They are assumed to be righteous. Nadav and Avihu are proof that even in the desert community the priests are not necessarily right. Nadav and Avihu were a mere harbinger of people to come including Korach and Eli. The prophets would become the torchbearers of the truth. Ultimately, the rabbis would say that the Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed by the corruption of the priestly class.
The cohanim got dressed up in Godly finery. They got dressed up for work every day and stood around waiting for the world to come to them. What they forgot was that clothes do not make the man. The man was supposed to live in his life that which the clothes represented.
In an egalitarian society, we can no longer judge people on the way they look or dress. We don’t make an assumption of their values or honesty, because more than likely, the assumption isn’t true. Or is it? The story of Nadav and Avihu is a metaphor for those who step out of appropriate boundaries — lying, cheating and going above the law. Wearing a uniform used to mean something. A title confers on an elected official a good reputation and maybe some transparency? We need to be careful: The cover-up of the better-than-thou through dress, hairdos, frocks, makeup and surgery is still present.
Jonathan Perlman is spiritual leader of New Light Congregation. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.