28 March 2008
21 Adar 2, 5768
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shemini, the mishkan (tabernacle) has been completed and the altar has been consecrated, and Aaron and his sons are commanded to bring the first set of sacrifices, which will atone for them and for their entire community. This is a huge moment for Aaron, his children and all of Israel – the dramatic initiation of sacrificial worship, the opportunity to atone for the sin of the golden calf, and the creation of a mechanism (sacrifices) by which to sustain God’s presence in the community even in light of great human imperfection.
Early in the narrative, Moses commands Aaron to make the first sacrificial offerings, an obvious and necessary command at this point in the story. But the way Moses phrases the command, and the way Aaron is expected to make the first sacrifices, offers insight into the nature of leadership and the relationship between leaders and those they lead.
“And Moses said to Aaron, ‘Come forward to the altar and sacrifice your purification offering and your burnt offering, and atone for yourself and for the people, and sacrifice the offering of the people and atone for them, as the Lord has commanded.’” (Leviticus 9:7) The medieval Spanish commentator, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, focuses on the order of these sacrifices and explains that Aaron needs to atone for himself first “because a person cannot atone for another person until he himself has been purified.” Lest Aaron think he can or must ignore or repress his own shortcomings in order to fulfill his role as ritual leader of B’nei Yisrael, Moses reminds him: Take care of your own house first. First take responsibility for yourself and your actions, and then you can help others (in this case the entire community) take responsibility for theirs. Before you can stand before God on behalf of your community, look at yourself in the mirror and make sure that you yourself can stand before God with a clear conscience.
These few words of Biblical text and Ibn Ezra’s commentary remind me of the most haunting definition of a leader that I have encountered, and one that rings true for me every day. Parker Palmer, who writes about education and spirituality, and is one of my rebbe’s from afar, describes the relationship between leadership and spirituality: “I’ll give you a quick definition of a leader: a leader is a person who has an unusual degree of power to project on other people his or her shadow, or his or her light. . . a leader is a person who must take special responsibility for what’s going on inside him or her self, inside his or her consciousness, lest the act of leadership create more harm than good . . . One of the biggest shadows inside a lot of leaders is deep insecurity about their own identity, their own worth.”
How deeply hypocritical – at best ineffective and at worst spiritually destructive – would it have been had Aaron attempted to bring the sacrifice of the people and make their relationship with God whole again, before taking ownership for his role in the incident of the golden calf, his deep imperfections, his own lack of wholeness? How often do we, as leaders, teachers, parents, spouses, seek to change, fix, or fixate on the flaws and imperfections of others before we look honestly at ourselves? This week’s parsha reminds us that our capacity to lead and teach, and the quality and integrity of our relationships – with our students, our children, our partners and friends – are deeply impacted by our own inner lives, our ethical and spiritual integrity, our shleimut (wholeness) or lack of shleimut with ourselves, with God and with others.
May we follow in the footsteps of Aaron, striving to take responsibility for our imperfections and our inner lives as prerequisites for leading and teaching others; and in doing so, may we project our light, rather than our shadow on all those around us.
Rabbi Marc Baker