Sh’mini: “Taking Up the Right Amount of Space”

Each week we invite a different liberal Jewish thought leader or rabbi to write a “Taste of Torah” on the weekly portion. To receive LAASOK’s Taste of Torah by email each week, subscribe to our newsletter.

This week’s author is Rabbi Dean Shapiro.

Dean Shapiro is the rabbi of Beth Shalom: The Progressive Jewish Community of Auckland, New Zealand. He also directs The Joseph Project, designed to train clergy people of all faith traditions to lead their communities through Climate Change. He received rabbinic ordination from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College.

Nadav and Avihu have a front-row seat to history.

The two priests, sons of Aaron, stand alongside the rest of the leadership when Moses receives the 10 Commandments. They help as Aaron makes the first sacrifices and dedicates the Mishkan. They witness God’s fire appear and devour the offering. Then, they take a step too far.

Nadav and Avihu offer their own sacrifice, one they hadn’t been commanded to make. Fire from God shoots out and consumes them; in a flash they are burnt to a crisp.

Some rabbis propose that Nadav and Avihu are punished for their arrogance. When they paraded up the mountain, a midrash relates, they schemed about becoming senior leaders themselves. They offered the sacrifice when none was needed, thinking themselves superior, even, to Moses and Aaron. They believed themselves too good for any woman. To the rabbis, they represent unbridled egotism.

Confidence is a subtle characteristic. Not enough, and you’re a door mat, mistreated by those who know they can take advantage of you. Too much, and you’re despised for haughtiness. All the while, confidence is in the eye of the beholder – it’s the one watching you who judges whether you have too little or too much. That determination is not based on who you actually are, but rather on how they feel about themselves.

That’s why I love Alan Morinis’ definition of humility: “taking up the right amount of space on the bench.”  Too much (arrogance) OR too little (self-debasement) is a symptom of an ego out of balance. Somehow, we have to find an appropriate blend.

Morinis’ definition reveals that appropriate confidence is situational. I may feel capable when teaching high school students, but ignorant in the presence of venerable rabbis.  I’m confident in my ability to teach those high schoolers about Judaism; less so when it comes to physics.  A healthy perspective requires that I bring an appropriate and evolving view of myself to each situation.

“Appropriate confidence is situational. A healthy perspective requires that I bring an appropriate and evolving view of myself to each situation.”

– Rabbi Dean Shapiro

The story goes: Shmuly and Avram – the former a successful businessman in the shtetl and the later a prominent magistrate – were davening Kol Nidre. “I am but dust and ashes!” Shmuly declared. “I am but dust and ashes!” Avram intoned.  The pair then overheard Moshe, the humble beggar, offer up the same prayer.  Shmuly and Avram looked at each other and scoffed:  “Look who thinks he’s dust and ashes!”

We are all dust and ashes. And we are all star stuff. We are all insufficient and we are all magnificent. We live our lives somewhere in between.

One response to “Sh’mini: “Taking Up the Right Amount of Space””

  1. we did not dive deeply into this aspect of their personalities yesterday at our Torah Study session but a perspective certainly worth adding to the pile. The complexities and sheer number of interpretations of what G-d’s swift and unexplained actions mean is overwhelming. The discussion even took us to: “well; what would have history and the Torah told us if they would have done only as G-d had commanded?”

    I don’t think we will ever be finished discussing what the sages and contemporary thought leaders think their actions meant. It’s 100% conjecture. But maybe in the next cycle, we should NOT discuss N and A and see what happens to US?

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