Emotional Outburst – Parshat Shemini 5781

On a family trip a few years ago, things were not going how we had planned. The kids were cranky, the lines at the airport were long, and TSA was not particularly helpful or friendly. Nothing seemed to be going our way, and it didn’t help that Duncan and I weren’t quite seeing eye to eye that morning, to put it mildly.

As we were walking into the airport, I had Matan strapped to me in a baby carrier on my front (he wouldn’t go on my back), my backpack on my back, two kid backpacks, a bag with food and snacks, our checked bag, and the car seat carrier in my hands. No fewer than three people stopped me before we even got to the check-in counter to ask if “she had her own ticket” (indicating Matan, who still had long hair at the time). By the time the third employee asked me, I snapped back, “He is two and a half, and he has his own seat!” The woman was rightly offended at my overreaction, and Duncan stepped in hoping to diffuse the situation with, “She’s mad at me, not you.” He was right, I was annoyed at him, and I took my anger out on the first available target in my path. We all express misplaced anger sometimes, but that doesn’t make it any less hurtful when it happens. 

It’s probably no surprise that misplaced anger can often be seen in the Torah. This week we read Parshat Shemini, which details the specifics of kashrut (the laws of keeping kosher) and what it means to eat Jewishly. The text begins with the anointing and first acts of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, as they make their entrance into the celebrity of the priesthood, and continues with the specific details of how they should act in giving an offering. Tragically, Nadav and Avihu take advantage of their role as priests and pay the ultimate price for it. Moses, Aaron, and the remaining sons Elazar and Itamar are left to move forward with ritual and leadership all while deep in their own grief. The Torah doesn’t dwell on Nadav’s and Avihu’s deaths or the surrounding circumstances. There is work to be done, and onward the Torah moves.

In chapter 10, verse 16, Moses goes on a tirade against Elazar and Itamar. The Torah actually reports that Moses is angry with them and then berates them for not doing the purification offering the appropriate way. Aaron steps in after Moses expresses his rage to remind him that priests in mourning are not permitted to eat of the sacrifice. And again, Moses moves on.

A commentary on the text from Leviticus Rabbah hypothesizes that Moses was still so consumed with his grief that his knowledge of the law left him. His ability to maintain emotional stasis for himself and toward others was simply clouded over during his mourning. Parshat Shemini offers the reminder that the best way to manage stressful or traumatic situations is to know ourselves, check in with our own emotions, and if possible, find a way to channel those emotions in more productive and less destructive ways. Fortunately my airport outbursts are few and far between, but it’s these exact types of moments that allow us to grow and learn and work to be the very best version of ourselves. 

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