Edwin Friedman, rabbi turned Family Therapist, tells in his book ‘Friedman’s Fables’ of a man who wanted to teach his wife to play tennis. He bought her the best racquet and shoes that money could buy; he hired the greatest coaches. But somehow, she just didn’t get it. Finally, despairing, the husband decided to teach her himself. It still didn’t work; whatever he served to her, she did not hit back – she was barely even trying! Then he had an idea – he started serving the ball very, very gently, so that he could rush around the net, take her hand and hit the ball back with her. This worked so well that eventually his wife just left the court, and the man continued to run backwards and forwards, playing tennis with himself.
This image of one partner in a relationship ignoring the other is potent and troubling. How often do we just assume we know what the other person is thinking? How often do we really listen to them? Or are we instead playing tennis alone?
After the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, consumed by Divine fire, Moses is in danger of crossing that line with his brother. In Leviticus 10:3, just after the sons have died, Moses speaks to Aaron: “This is what God said, ‘Through those close to Me will I be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ “And Aaron was silent.”
Moses presumes to find meaning in what just happened; he tries to explain the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu to their grieving father. But whatever the reason for their death, whether they sinned or not (and the commentators have much to say on both sides of that question), surely this is not the moment to try to give a rationale. As Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says in Pirkei Avot 4:18: “Don’t appease your fellow in the moment of their anger; don’t comfort them while their dead still lies before them…”
Aaron completely shuts down. He has no words to say; he is in no mood for tennis.
When we try and tell people what to feel, what to think, what their suffering means, we end up playing alone, turning dialogue into monologue. Real relationships require acknowledging a viewpoint that isn’t necessarily your own and recognizing that the other person may be in a different place than you are.
Only at the end of the chapter is the situation resolved. After having just instructed Aaron and his remaining sons that the chatat, the sin-offering, must be consumed, Moses rebukes them for not doing so. Finally Aaron finds his voice (v. 19): “Today they sacrificed their sin offering and their burnt offering before God, but when such things have happened to me, would God have been pleased if I had eaten the sin offering?” When Moses heard this ‘it was good in his eyes’. (v 20). Rashi says that Moshe realized his error and was not afraid to admit it.
Moses now understands that his brother and nephews are grieving their loss, and that eating the sin-offering is not the most important thing at the moment. Acknowledging that he had erred enabled the tennis to become a game for two, once again. ‘And it was good in his eyes’ – Moses felt good about that.