The Torah in Parashat Shemini tells of a tense exchange that took place between Moshe and the newly-anointed kohanim – Aharon and his sons – on the final day of the Mishkan’s consecration (10:16-20). Rashi, based on Chazal, explains that the exchange resulted from the fact that two different kinds of sacrifices were offered that day: the special sacrifices that God commanded to be offered specifically in honor of this occasion, and the Rosh Chodesh musaf sacrifice, which was sacrificed because this event occurred on the first of Nissan. As Aharon’s two older sons died on that day, he and his remaining sons were forbidden to partake of the meat of the Rosh Chodesh sacrifice, given the prohibition against eating sacrifices in a state of aninut (the day of a family member’s death). The other sacrifices, however, which were not standard offerings and were required only to mark this once-in-history occasion, were to be eaten despite Aharon and his remaining sons’ state of aninut, as Moshe explicitly told them earlier (10:12-15). The controversy arose when Moshe saw that the musaf sacrifice was burned on the altar and not eaten by Aharon and his sons. For reasons that are unclear, Moshe forgot or did not realize that the kohanim could not eat this sacrifice due to their status, and so he angrily berated Aharon’s remaining sons for failing to eat this meat. Aharon then defended his and his sons’ decision not to eat the sacrifice, explaining that as onenim they were halakhically prohibited from partaking of the musaf sacrifice even though they were required to eat the other sacrifices offered that day.
Rashi (10:16), citing Torat Kohanim, notes that Moshe directed his anger specifically to Elazar and Itamar – Aharon’s remaining sons – and not to Aharon. Despite the fact that all three, apparently, were guilty in Moshe’s mind of neglecting their responsibility with respect to the musaf sacrifice, he expressed his displeasure only to Aharon’s sons. Rashi explains, “Out of honor for Aharon he turned his face to the sons and expressed anger.”
Rav Chaim Elazary, in his Netivei Chayim, notes the practical lesson that emerges from Rashi’s comments: even when expressing anger is justified, causing embarrassment is not. As mentioned, it seems that the mistake which Moshe wrongly attributed to his nephews was made, in his mind, by his brother, as well. Yet, he directed his remarks specifically to Elazar and Itamar because reprimanding his older brother would cause him shame. Expressing anger is warranted under some circumstances, but not if it causes the person embarrassment. Chazal drew a clear distinction between the two – appropriate criticism and censure, on the one hand, and, on the other, humiliation – and urged us to likewise make this distinction in our interpersonal relations.
We might add that Chazal’s remark becomes especially significant when we consider two aspects of this particular incident: it involved a conflict among family members, and it involved a question regarding proper halakhic observance. These two contexts – family affairs, and matters of religious import – are ones in which people often allow themselves greater liberties in expressing protest and disapproval. Among family members, the sense of closeness and familiarity often makes us feel more at ease to express our emotions and voice criticism than we do outside the family context. And when it comes to religious matters, of course, the ostensibly noble cause and the importance we rightfully afford to proper observance can lead us to feel justified in embarrassing those who we feel act improperly. Rashi’s comments remind us of the importance of protecting the dignity of even those who we believe deserve criticism, under any circumstance. Even when criticism is warranted and appropriate, embarrassing another person is not – even within the family, and even when dealing with vitally important religious matters.