How Should We Act?

This week the portion from Leviticus and its companion in II Samuel ask a very powerful question: how should we act?

Let me be more precise. We know that being holy in our tradition involves respecting what we normally associate with the sacred; but, importantly, it also involves living in accord with God’s direction to “love your neighbor as yourself.” So, the question posed is really: as a holy people, how are we to act in the significant matters of life?

We get several stories this week that raise the question and suggest answers. The challenge is these accounts are ancient and largely mysterious. This is further complicated by the fact that the great sages over the centuries disagree greatly on the their meaning.

For all of you who, turned off by what’s ancient or uncertain, might stop reading, I APPEAL TO YOU TO STAY. I’ll make it short, and I promise that the message at the end will be worth your while.

Let me begin by giving a brief account of the stories. (I hope purists give me a little license in the simplification.)

First, in the portion, Aaron and Moses duly bring the first offerings in the newly dedicated Tabernacle, bless the people, and experience the nearness and glory of God.

Second, Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, perhaps inebriated or spiritually ecstatic, bring strange (and uncalled for) fire to make an offering to God, and they are themselves consumed.

Third, though in obvious pain, Aaron responds to all this in silence. Then, clearly out of duty, he resists Moses’ charge to eat of the offerings because of the impropriety of doing so in the midst of that day’s tragic events. Moses is pleased with Aaron, as clearly was God. God now involves Aaron for the first time in matters of leadership, along with Moses.

In II Samuel, we read of King David’s returning the ark to the land. The ark is loaded on a cart instead of, as prescribed, being carried by priests. A fellow inappropriately grabs the ark and is struck by God. Things having gone wrong, David stops and places the ark in a safe place for months. Then, certain of God’s blessing, David leads the ark’s procession to Jerusalem.

Finally, in the celebration of the ark’s return, David, though criticized for it, “dances with all his might before the Lord” in the clothes of a simple person.

I know. I know. These stories are, in many ways confounding. Indeed some may be unexplainable.

Yet, I think there’s a hugely important message here. Let’s try to find its thread.

Perhaps when we we approach the important things in life, we should be mindful of God’s expectations and act with fidelity to them, as we are taught: “Be mindful of My mitzvot, and do them, so shall you consecrate yourselves to your God.”

Whatever good or bad confronts us in life, we should be attentive and mindful of our duties. Indeed, in each moment of life, we ought to orient our whole being to doing what we should do. Aaron teaches profoundly that sometimes this requires that we wait and be silent. Often we don’t know and can’t explain what’s happened around or to us. We do, however, know our duty, and we should principally be devoted to living true to that duty.

Finally in this week’s text, as David teaches, we should place joy front and center in living the life that God has given us.

The Shulchan Aruch captures the whole idea: “Pray with lowered eyes and a soaring heart.”


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