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A Discussion of Messianic Judaism, the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm, and Related Leadership Issues from the Preoccupied Mind of Rabbi Stuart Dauermann, PhD.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

One Good, or Bad, Thing Leads to Another

The following is a sermon for Parshat Shemini, which includes the account of Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu offering "strange fire/unauthorized fire" before the Lord, and being struck down for it. The sermon considers how one one bad decision tends to lead to another, and one good one to another as well.

1 Now Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. 2 And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord. 3 Then Moses said to Aaron, "This is what the Lord meant when He said:

Through those near to Me I show Myself holy,
And gain glory before all the people."

And Aaron was silent.

4 Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said to them, "Come forward and carry your kinsmen away from the front of the sanctuary to a place outside the camp." 5 They came forward and carried them out of the camp by their tunics, as Moses had ordered. 6 And Moses said to Aaron and to his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, "Do not bare your heads and do not rend your clothes, lest you die and anger strike the whole community. But your kinsmen, all the house of Israel, shall bewail the burning that the Lord has wrought. 7 And so do not go outside the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, lest you die, for the Lord's anointing oil is upon you." And they did as Moses had bidden.

8 And the Lord spoke to Aaron, saying: 9 Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. This is a law for all time throughout the ages, 10 for you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean; 11 and you must teach the Israelites all the laws which the Lord has imparted to them through Moses.

What do we learn from this account? What was it that Nadav and Avihu did wrong and why did they do it? As recorded in chapter nine, hey had just seen God manifest his power by coming down in fire to ignite the altar, and apparently, they were just so very jazzed by that that they go a little boozed up and tried to get God to do it again. I draw that conclusion from God’s word to Aaron and his sons after this incident, that they ought not to drink liquor when they tend the altar of the Lord. What is the lesson for us? Is this about being teatotalers? No, it’s not so much a lesson in abstinence, as a lesson in humility.

Rabbi Jonathan Kaplan, of our own UMJC concurs, and reminds us that our sages had reached the same conclusion, which should not entirely surprise us since our ancestors took the text of Scripture very seriously and thought deeply about it.

Rabbi Kaplan comments rightly, how the text calls their offering “’esh zara ’asher lo’ tzivva ’otam”an alien fire which God had not commanded them.” He then quotes contemporary Jewish scholar, Baruch Levine, who suggests they were offering something extra which Hashem had not commanded, and that “their offering was well-intentioned but done improperly, an offering not prescribed by God.”

Rabbi Kaplan notes as well how the subsequent reference to the prohibition against priests drinking wine when they perform their duties suggests that Nadav and Avihu had gotten too boozed up celebrating the dedication of the Mishkan and their own investiture as priests.

He reports how another ancient source, Sifra, “suggests the foolhardy act of the two young priests proceeded from unrestrained exuberance. They too in their joy, as soon as they saw the new fire, stood forth to heap love unto their love’ (Parashat Shemini Mekhilta Demiluim 32). Here, our ancestors attribute their poor judgment not to booze but to unrestrained enthusiasm.

We might therefore draw a lesson about drinking, or a lesson about exuberance: about the need to keep a cool head at all times, especially in the service of God. It seems that one of the core lessons is that we who claim to serve God is that we must respect the boundaries he has set, and not get cute.

The same lesson is evident in the first part of our Haftarah. In putting the Ark of God on an ox cart, the Levites had gone outside of the boundaries God had set—the Ark was meant to be carried on the shoulders of the Levites. And because, either in exuberance or in ignorance, the Ark was being transported as it should not have been transported, Uzzah reached out to steady it and did what he should not have done—he touched the holy Ark itself, something which no one was supposed to do.

This reminds one of a lesson taught by our tradition: “mitzvah goreret mitzvah, v’avon goreret avon”—one mitzvah leads to another, and one sin leads to another. One compromise of God’s standards is likely to lead to another, until eventually, one finds oneself far from where one ought to be.

But there is another interpretation of this principle, that one person's mitzvah leads to another's good deed, and one person’s sin leads to another’s transgression.

Let’s look at these two principles in concluding today.

First, it is important to pay attention to the smaller details of obedience, because one good habit, one good action, leads to others.

Second, it is important to pay attention to how we live, because our good example can embolden someone else to do what is right. How many times have you been inspired by someone else’s example? How often have others been inspired to do what is right due to your example? Yes, one mitvzah leads to another: whether your own or someone else’s.

Third, one sin leads to another. Nadav and Avihu got boozed up, this led to their offering an offering God had not commanded. Uzzah and his friends put the Ark of God on an ox-cart, something they should not have done. This led to another transgression—reaching out and touching something not meant to be touched.

Similarly, we must examine our own lives, how one compromise leads to another. We must also consider how our sins can become a stumbling block for others, something Scripture speaks of repeatedly—putting a stumbling block in someone else’s way. Yeshua spoke of this in frightening terms: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me; and whoever ensnares one of these little ones who trust me, it would be better for him to have a millstone hung around his neck and be drowned in the open sea!” (Matthew 18:5-6).

Finally, lets finish on a positive note. It is within our power to begin forming good habits, knowing that good habits drive out bad ones. Each of us would do well to focus one at a time upon areas where we have formed bad habits. Starting with one habit, we should form a plan on how to replace that bad habit with a new one, practicing that consistently and intentionally for six weeks. By that time, the new habit will be so ingrained as to be subconscious—you won’t even have to think about it!

Let’s choose something relatively benign and very common as an example. Suppose you have a bad habit of misplacing your keys when you return home. You often have to scramble around the house looking for them when you must go somewhere, and this upsets you and everyone around you. You need to form, and then follow, a plan.

First, choose a logical and always available place where you should put those keys whenever you come home. It must be a place no one will disturb.

Second, whenever you come home, as you come in the door, put the keys in that place/on that place saying aloud “I am putting the keys in the/on the______.” I know this sounds silly, but believe me, saying it aloud elevates your attention and forms the new habit much more deeply and faster.

Third, continue reinforcing this habit for from three to six weeks (it depends on how quickly you habituate to the new practice). At that point, you will have conquered a problem habit, ready to move on to another!

Let’s go for it, shall we? One good habit leads to another. And one mitzvah leads to another. Let’s take stock of our habits, identify the bad ones, and one by one, replace them with something better. Bad habits decrease our freedom and joy, good habits increase our freedom and joy.

What choice will you make?

At 4/19/2007 2:08 PM, Blogger Dottie Connecter said...

I think there has to be a difference between what requires faith and what requires faithfulness. By its definition, something that is a habit could be an act of faithfulness but it doesn't require faith.

For example, those moving the Ark of God needed to be faithful but it didn't require faith. Had those moving it been faithful to God's instruction, an ox tripping wouldn't have lead to a man's death. So yes, it is a good habit to would have been to have the Levites carries the ark with poles as instructed. But God wasn’t expected to do anything as the result of moving the Ark of God faithfully.

However, it takes faith to
...build an ark away from water
...offer your only son as a sacrifice
...refuse to be known as the son of Pharaoh's daughter
...be tortured and refused to be released, so that you might gain a better resurrection.
As described in Hebrews 11. One can hardly get into the habit of doing anything listed.

Those who don't believe in God can imitate being faithful. However, the thought of acting in faith as the Hebrews describes faith makes no sense at all. But to those acting on their faith, it makes all the sense in the world.

Take the Passover for example: Putting blood on a doorframe to save the lives of the first borns inside and outside the house either made perfect sense or no sense at all. And so those with faith were separated from those without faith…


At 4/24/2007 5:06 PM, Blogger brettford said...

thank you so much for your explanation of the ox cart-- for years i have pondered the why of this situation, and have never had a reasonable explanation offered as to why he was killed. sometimes G-d hides the obvious in plain sight. of course they were not authorized to use an ox cart. As my wife noted, G-od wanted the ark containing the LAW carried on our shoulders (sh'khem)-- Y'shua point's out HIS yoke is light-- also to placed on our shoulders. Rabbi, could you comment further on this please??

At 4/24/2007 5:38 PM, Blogger Stuart Dauermann said...

Mr Rettford,

I don't think it necessary for us to find typological symbolism here in order to understand this passage (such as Yeshua's yoke being easy, etc.). Often the most obvious thing is the thing. In this case, the obvious thing is that Uzzah never should have touched the ark, and if the priests had been paying attention to what they were supposed to know, that never would have happened. It was all a terrible illustration of carelessness with the things of God on the part of the very people charged and instructed to know better.

The incident was a symptom of the low level of attentiveness the Levites were paying to the things of God. What a reality check this was!


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