Parashat Shemini begins with the ordination of Aaron and his sons. Almost without warning or fanfare, they are brought before the entire community, washed with water, dressed up with appropriate and ornate priestly garb, anointed with oil and led through a sacrificial ritual–that includes live animals being slaughtered, their blood sprinkled on the alter and on Aaron and his sons–as well as wave offerings with bread, wafers and oil. Eight days later, they are commanded to begin their work as high priests, and Aaron officiates his first sacrifice for the Israelite community with his sons Nadav and Avihu watching. The first official sacrifice goes well – all the people of the community witnessed, shouted and fell on their faces in bewilderment and awe. Just moments later, Nadav and Avihu take a turn – they each take their fire pan, put incense in it, and light it on fire–but something goes woefully wrong. The text says that God sees it as “alien” or “strange” fire and consumes the boys instead of the sacrifice. They boys die immediately.
As an educator and as a mother, this text is extremely troubling. But I am not alone; the tragic tale has mystified the most wise of our commentators. They’ve searched the text for clues as to why God would react so harshly to the two young men beginning to learn their role as priests. Some commentators suggest they were inebriated, others suggest they simply did it wrong – too overly ambitious without really understanding the role yet. Others create dialogue where there was none, assuming the boys were arrogant and talked about how they would rule better than Moses and Aaron. All these explanations attempt to justify a catastrophe of epic proportions that seems highly unjust.
No matter how many commentators I read, none of them placate my profound heartache for Aaron or the community, and I can only read this text with new eyes towards understanding better what our community can do better with our youth. Nadav and Avihu were thrust into this new role – given 7 days to absorb the magnitude of their profession, let alone the complicated rules governing the intricate rituals of sacrifice and ministering to an Israel community. So much was assumed of them, so much overlooked in their “education” and acclimation to the new position. In the absence of dialogue – dialogue I will not insert into the text–I am left contemplating the dangers of silence and assumptions in education. What happens to our children and families when we assume they can do what we can do, take previous knowledge for granted or simply forget to stop and explain, check in or engage in dialogue with our learners and families?
At Temple Israel, I have started to reflect on these questions, most specifically in how they relate to those children we most underserve – those with special needs. With the help of two courageous parents in our community, we have begun to push ourselves to pilot new programs designed to help welcome those children and families into our midst, giving them a safe but stimulating place to explore Jewish holidays and Shabbat. During our celebrations of Chanukah and Pesach we educate differently than we have in the past; we assume nothing, we build relationships of care and trust and we provide interactive and tactile activities at the heart of all we do. Most importantly, we have reframed our goals – we do care that the content be current, engaging and deeply enriching, but we are also supportive of other goals. For some of these new families, the goals may be to meet new faces, hear Jewish music or simply feel comfortable in the building. We have only just begun. This year we will provide two family programs (Chanukah and Passover) that will begin to make Rockin’ Shabbat an inclusive and warm setting for all of our families – including those whose children have special needs. We will open our Purim Carnival early for those children who need a more quiet approach to a Purim celebration. These steps towards an inclusive community for all help us break down the walls that for too long have restricted some of our families from participating in Jewish life and learning.
But the tragic tale of Nadav and Avihu still begs us to do better and try harder. Are we stopping to check in with all of our students and families? Do we need to listen better to the struggles each family brings as they take on a new role? For many of our families they are new to parenting a special needs child, new to navigating resources in the Jewish and secular schools, and new to the emotional and physical stamina needed to face all of the challenges that come their way. Do we assume too much? Assume they are “fine,” that they have it all figured out, assume they have too much on their plates to need a Jewish education? What tragedy will befall us if we fail to listen, approach, or hold the hands of our community members and beyond? Can we turn a strange fire into a fire of inspiration, one that ignites our passion to serve all of our community members, all of our students of Torah, and in doing so create a most vibrant and inclusive community for all?
Rabbi Melissa Buyer-Witman is the Director of Lifelong Learning at Temple Israel of the City of New York where she oversees and helps to vision Jewish learning for all ages. She began her journey in Jewish education as a Dean of Students at Milken Community High School in Los Angeles, Calif. From 2006-2011 Rabbi Buyer served as the Director of Religious School, Youth and Camp Programs for Stephen S. Wise Temple where she was responsible for a number of innovations. In 2010 she brought many of those innovations, including her nationally recognized pilot program, “TiLearn,” that blends on-site learning with distance learning to Temple Israel. Rabbi Buyer continues to serve in leadership positions in the field of Jewish education. She currently serves as the Chair of the Central Conference of American Rabbi’s committee to create a High Holy Day Machzor for youth and families. In addition she serves as the Advocacy Team chair for the Association of Reform Jewish Educators. She also served on the Board of Overseers for Hebrew Union College in Los Angles, The Board of the ARJE, and the Central Conference of American Rabbi’s Children and Youth Siddur Committee. In January of 2011, she co-chaired the National Association of Temple Educators National Conference in Seattle, Washington on Jewish Education and Technology. She is participant in Cohort 6 of the Matan Institute for Education Directors