At times of crisis, true leaders often emerge, be they political, military or religious. Their ability to effectively provide inspiration, motivation, hope, and comfort when needed sows seeds of evolutionary growth in the life of a nation. This is equally true on a personal level, especially when a sudden tragedy strikes. It is in these situations that great people reach for strength and ability they did not even know they possessed.
While the greatness of Moshe is demonstrated time and time again throughout Chumash—in his intolerance of injustice, his fearless challenge of Pharaoh, his spiritual inspiration, his total defense of the Jewish people, his moral refinement—we catch a small glimpse of his noble character in the aftermath of the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu. In the midst of the dedication ceremony of the tabernacle, Aaron's two oldest sons, who were among the most righteous in the nation, were killed for reasons that remain unclear. A heavenly fire consumed them; in the blink of an eye, the festive atmosphere came to a screeching halt.
The first thing Moshe did was to assure the distraught father that they did not die in vain. Moshe quotes G-d, "I will be sanctified by those close to Me" (Vayikra 10:3). He assured Aaron that their life, and even their death, had great meaning and purpose; thus offering him some degree of comfort.
The Torah then records that Moshe asked his two youngest first cousins, Mishael and Eltzafan, to remove "their brothers from within the holy" (10:4). Why, of all people, did Moshe ask them? Why not ask the two remaining brothers, Elazar and Itamar—or at the very least, some of the older cousins—to remove the bodies?
Moshe, the Netziv explains, was well aware of the latent (and soon to be not-so-latent) jealousy that many felt towards Aharon; they figured he had achieved his high priesthood through nepotism. In addition to words of comfort offered by the nation, there may have been a little smug satisfaction in their condolences to Aharon; just desserts for the power-hungry, they may have thought. It is for this reason that Jewish law forbids a known foe from paying a shiva visit upon the death of his adversary. Instead of being comforted, the family may interpret the visit as gloating, even if in actuality, that is not the case.
Moshe, realizing the sensitivity of the moment, chose those younger and humbler cousins, who could have had no feelings of jealousy. As the children of Uziel, the youngest of Kehat's four children, they had no expectations of leadership. They were just young men, living a quiet, dignified life. They could carry out their grim duty filled with pain and sorrow for Aharon, and most important, he would be able to accept their service wholeheartedly. Ironically, it was Moshe's later appointment of Eltzafan as the leader of Kehat that led to Korach's failed rebellion. It is noteworthy that Mishael, though older than Eltzafan, graciously accepted the latter’s appointment.
That one can feel grief mixed with joy is well recognized by our rabbis. In an amazing insight into the human psyche, the halacha requires that one recite the bracha of Shehechiyanu upon inheriting a large sum of money due to the death of a parent, despite the fact that this bracha is usually reserved for moments of rare joy. Our Rabbis understood that even while one mourns, there is joy at one's newfound wealth.
Moshe’s empathy did not end there. The tragic story of Nadav and Avihu has, as its concluding verse, "and Moshe heard and it was good in his eyes" (10:26). Moshe had mistakenly accused Elazar and Itamar of being remiss by not eating of the sin offering brought; as kohanim leading the Temple service, their public duty must take precedence over personal grief, Moshe thought. When Aharon corrected Moshe, and pointed out that a kohen who is an onen (faced with the death of a relative prior to burial) may not partake of sacrifices—the connection to G-d being temporarily severed—Moshe humbly acknowledged his mistake, with no excuses or mitigation. The last word the Torah leaves us with is Moshe's admission of his mistake in the confusing aftermath of tragedy; “and Moshe heard and he agreed” (10:20). If only we could all learn from this greatest of leaders!