“And the Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they came near the Lord, and died;” …Leviticus 16:1
Well, that’s a cheerful way to start this week’s Torah reading. God is about to give Moses instructions to give Aaron, but it starts with a reminder of the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, who were killed for offering “strange fire” to the Lord. What’s the point?
Rashi explains with an story from the Talmud, which I will make more contemporary. Let’s say you go to the doctor and he tells you that you should always fasten your seat belt and you shouldn’t smoke. OK fine, whatever, thanks Doc and you go on your way. On the other hand, if he says, “always fasten your seat belt, you don’t want to get killed in a car wreck, like poor Sam. Too bad he forgot to buckle up. Oh yes, and you know you really should quit smoking. It was really tough seeing John’s unsuccessful battle with lung cancer, wasn’t it?”
Needless to say, the second version is a far more effective warning than the first version.
There is nothing like a personal connection to get you to take something seriously. When I was ordained as a rabbi, the very first funeral I officiated at was for a man who was only two years older than me — several years younger than I am now. It certainly got my attention. Similarly, after my mother passed away from colon cancer, I became much more attentive to the screening exams.
Things that are abstract, that we only read about in the newspaper, that don’t touch our lives directly, tend not to effect our behavior much. We can read about terrible things happening in some far away country, but if we have no connection to the people there, it’s easy to be callous. Rwanda and Darfur are two examples that come to mind immediately.
But if you have a personal connection — if the “doctor” can remind you it happened to someone you know — it’s a completely different story. I have a few friends who live in the south of Israel who spend much of last Shabbat running in and out of bomb shelters because of the rocket attacks coming from Gaza. That increases my concern, and desire to do something. Not that there’s much I can do. But you know what I mean.
This is similar to what I wrote about last week, for parshat Metzora, when I wrote about the power of going out to see for yourself. If you can’t have the first hand experience of seeing for yourself, the next best thing is to hear it directly from a friend or family member. Having a direct connection to something always makes it more powerful than just reading about it in the newspaper.
That’s one of the things that makes living in Israel such a powerful — and at times exhausting — experience. It’s a small country. The “Anglo” (English speaking) community is even smaller. It really feels like you are connected to everything happening here. As I mentioned, I have friends who live in the south and had to hide from rockets; when a bomb went off by a bus I had to check on my kids; I live around the corner from the parents of the mother in the family that was murdered a few weeks ago; if we do go back to Gaza, I have friends who have kids in the IDF. And on the other side, again as I mentioned last week I’ve met many Palestinians in my volunteer work with Rabbis for Human Rights. It all makes living here very intense.