Years ago, Pink Floyd’s irreverent song “Another Brick in the Wall” caught my attention. Lines like, “We don’t need no education. We don’t need no thought control. No dark sarcasm in the classroom,” followed by the commanding, “Teachers, leave them kids alone!” caught my attention. As a thirty-year college classroom teacher, it gets my attention even now. My job here, of course, is to understand Moses, not Pink Floyd. I mention Pink at the outset, not to attempt to explain him but to note that, in this week’s parasha, Aaron stands up to Moses the rabbi-teacher and, in effect says, says: “Hey teacher. Leave my kids alone!” Really!? Could it be? Don’t take my word for it. Take a look.
In Leviticus 10:16-20, Moses noted that a sin offering was not attended to properly (v. 16) and “snapped at [Aaron’s priestly sons] Eleazar and Itamar” (v. 17). He is heard scolding them, in vv.17-18, with: “Why have you been negligent!?” (My paraphrase.) By way of response, Aaron steps in and says, in effect: “Ok. You’re right. But they did this and they did that. Hey teacher, leave those kids alone!” After he takes up for them, Moses considers his argument and backs off his critique, in v. 20. The back-and-forth between Moses and Aaron makes for a rather odd exchange. Don’t take my word for it; take a moment and read it in the Word yourself. When I did, this odd exchange and moment leapt out and prompted some reflection. What is going on here in the ancient Word, I wondered, and might it have any implications for today’s modern readers?
When one considers how chapter 10 began with Aaron’s two other sons, Nadab and Abihu, invoking God’s ire for not properly attending to the Tabernacle’s particulars, and being summarily executed, it’s understandable that Aaron would be a bit edgy when his other two sons—novice priests, themselves—become the object of Moses’ displeasure, for screwing up a major sacrifice in the Sanctuary. By way of response, one hears Aaron immediately taking up for them to stave off further chagrin. I imagine he’s particularly mindful of the consequences for not adhering to proper Tabernacle protocol, given that the chapter opens with a painful reminder to that effect. So much for face value, now let’s dig a little deeper.
In 9:15, Aaron, himself, was told to offer this offering—with no mention of his sons assisting. While I make room for delegation every now and again, the point is that he was principally responsible for the offering—and thus for the impropriety noted here. Rashi alights upon this and says Moses takes on Aaron’s sons, Eleazar and Itamar, so as not to cast aspersions on Aaron and the dignity of the High Priest’s office. Leaving the merits of this assumption aside, J. H. Hertz says, against the backdrop of the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, “they [all] didn’t deem themselves in a state of purity to share in the solemn rite” (Hertz, Pentateuch & Haftorahs, pp. 447-448). For him, assuming I understand him correctly, brazen disregard is less the issue here, than humility and a general feeling of unworthiness. In short, with Nadab and Abihu’s deaths still very fresh, and the internalized pain very raw, seeing themselves as sinners too, Eleazar and Itamar were reluctant to eat the sin offering. Was this a mistake, even so? Yes. But Moses was satisfied with the response (v. 20), and he moved on.
Before we move on ourselves, let’s consider a few applications. First, the misconception that God is an angry God given to snapping out on every one and throwing folk into hell for every infraction is simply not borne out by even a casual reading of the Mosaic literature. It’s not how Jews see him, and it’s simply not who he is. God is gracious. Secondly, note that motive is more important than motion here: at the chapter’s opening, the priests’ mistake evolved out of a casual indifference toward their priestly tasks—spirited along, perhaps, by their being intoxicated while attending to them; here, at the close, the misstep is spirited along by a very sober reverence—a fear of the Lord. With this as the case, judgment is averted: because God looks at the heart and not just at the fact that someone didn’t do their part.
This good news from ancient Jews is good news for me and yous. There is no word for “yous,” of course; I invented it because it rhymes. I wanted my point to impose itself on your brain and stick there. Why is that? Yeshua beckoned his followers to look deeply and to “not judge by appearance, but judge righteously” (Jn. 7:24). This, of course, comports perfectly with the Torah’s oft-stated premiums on looking into matters deeply, inquiring of particulars diligently and judging people and circumstances righteously. May we all do so in our affairs with others, and recall how our gracious God does so in his assessments of us.
Perhaps Pink Floyd’s kids didn’t need their teacher’s “mind control,” as the rebellious song goes, but we need ours. May biblical faith and virtue grow within us and renew our minds, along with a healthy reminder of the grace of God toward us—something amply attested in this week’s Torah reading.
In what follows, I'll share the story and offer what I understand to be Biblically-based reflections on dealing with getting dumped. First the story...
On the basis of my reputation, some time back I was contracted by a person I'd never met. A generous, well-intended, godly family wanted my religious teaching services for a week or two, and I was offered a very handsome allowance from them for it. I showed up and taught the way I teach. I speak all over the country and world--in conferences, congregations, Israel tours, etc. I have an earned doctorate in my field. I've been a seminary professor for 27 years, on top, and have had 20,000 students who, for the most part, respond well to my quirky, eccentric professorial ways, Biblically-based stories, teaching, rambling and more. As contracted, I came and hit the ground running--and I ran right into a brick wall, right away... Ouch.
I was pulled aside privately, shortly after I started and politely lectured on shortcomings with both my content and my communication style. Used to being respected and appreciated, and not a little taken back, I responded that I am who I am and do what I do the way I do it... and I made clear I wasn't going to change. Not only was my teaching content and style found wanting, but now the patrons had my non-receptivity to their critiques of my person, my ways and my means to consider. It was very, very unpleasant. I turned and walked away... and wrote a short, polite resignation letter later. My non-confrontational wife, Barri urged me to hold tight and not send it. I listened and went about serving/teaching that day. The next morning I was pulled aside again, this time politely dismissed from our agreement. To their credit, I was paid the balance owed me in full and put up in a swank hotel. It was gentlemanly. No judgments were tendered. Still, I was told to hit the road.
I could have been accommodating to their critique. My refusal prompted my dismissal. We all have good and bad days, and I know people like me can disappoint others. As a Bible college and seminary professor, I've always advocated that imperfect ministers still have to diligently guard and control the space around their heads, hearts and podiums, and confidently speak what's on their mind, their way, irrespective of real or imagined imperfections with their persons, their message or their audience's preferences. Professors adjudge this "freedom of speech" to be a non-negotiable right, something necessary for the teaching vocation itself. Others, in congregational work particularly, conversely, view parish clergy simply as employees of their communities and, as such, believe ministers can be imposed upon and required to bend to their employers' preferences, in order to better serve their religious patrons' interests. The truth, I think, is generally somewhere in the middle. Flexibility is called for by all parties, I grant. When it comes to the pulpit, however, I think the senior leader needs to own the space outright, period. The Christian people who wanted a Messianic scholar to come and teach their family and friends thought otherwise.
Should someone in my position and with my experience be able to say to himself and others: "Don't touch. I am who I am. I teach my way. If you like it, great. If not, sorry. You do not have my permission to touch me, tinker with me and change me"? I think so. My short term employer thought they could re-tool me to better comport with their sensibilities. They couldn't, so they fired me. I don't allow people to tinker with me when they feel inclined to improve upon me for reasons of their own. I don't claim perfection in what I do, and I don't want to besmirch anyone's character, personally, for finding fault with how I do it. Other's complaints may be well founded, I grant. There's always room for improvement, I know. For me, the issue is less about wronging someone else by not living up to their expectations, or being wronged by someone else for being sacked, and it is certainly much bigger than an arrangement for religious services that didn't quite work out. What then?
Here's my world. One in four senior ministers gets fired in North America, owing to congregations' dissatisfaction with their persons and performances. Sadly, only 33% of seminary graduates are pastoring 10 years after graduation. Frustrated, most just give up and quit... Ministry is a tough environment to survive in, let alone thrive in. Everyone has an opinion how you should be, think and act. This is the problem. What's a minister to do? This is the question.
I walked away from my dismissal minded to never take a short term (or long term) ministry assignment from a well-intended stranger again, without having a heart-to-heart conversation beforehand. During that time, I think it's very, very important for all parties to clarify their interests and expectations, and to be as authentic as they know how to be when so doing. I think it best to not hurry through this... Better to discover then if it's not going to be a fit. If it's not a fit, it doesn't mean someone is bad; it just means it didn't fit--no judgments.
Having long advocated that faith-based people need to spend more energy getting behind their faith-based leaders, than trying to get on top of them (as is the norm), I think people in my position need to make it very clear that we're counting on others' respect and support, even if we don't always entirely comport with their sensibilities.
Furthermore, I believe ministers' pulpits, like their bedrooms, should definitely NOT be open to the general public. Though employed in a public forum, the expositor's podium must be the spiritual leader's private place, a very intimate space to work in and from, where he/she can come to terms with a Biblical text, their own self in relation to it, and what and how they want to articulate that essence for others. There's a maxim among scuba divers: "Don't touch the coral reefs. If you touch them you'll kill them." Same is true with ministers in the speaking zone. "Hands off... It kills us."
Seems to me, the gracious and well-intended patrons who sponsored my coming, thought that, because they signed the check, it was their prerogative to impose themselves on space I own--space that's not up for sale, and space I don't give away irrespective of money thrown my way.
The sponsors were lovely Christian people, anxious for all their guests to have particular experiences. Since they really wanted to lead, in retrospect, I think the family should not have hired me at all but have stood up and been the pastors themselves. If they insist on having clergy on board as a chaplain, I think hiring someone as strong willed as me is a mistake at the outset. Better to go with a shepherd who is much more sheepish. I have too much fire in my belly still, even though I'm sixty, and have no problem pushing back. It got me fired. I'm okay with that.
On the morning after, my ever-so-sweet, newly-married wife Barri stood by the window of the hotel in Jerusalem, staring through the window, anxious to just go home. Barri loves me and thinks I'm the best. I am her shining star, her super hero... There she was now, tearful, upset, shell-shocked, struggling to come to terms with my rejection--and hers by association. Though a hero in her eyes, I was a zero in somebody else's. Her man was dumped. At breakfast, I offered that hurt, gentle, loving woman--one whose learning about being a rabbi's wife--a perspective: "Barri," I said, "it's very sweet people like you who go into the ministry; and it's very tough people like me who remain in it after over thirty years--and love it still, even with the many problems that go with it."
Jeffrey L. Seif is a graduate of the North Texas Regional Police Academy, and holds a master's and doctorate in Theology / Ministry from Southern Methodist University. He is a professor at King's University - Houston, part-time police officer, the Project Manager for the new TLV Bible, a congregational leader, author, and a sought after Bible teacher.