You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Shemini.
From Rishe Groner
…After weeks of readings regaling us with the building of this magnificent sacred space, lined with lush fabrics, filled with sparkling gold, silver and copper objects, and framed with the finest acacia wood, we are primed for action. Previously in the season, we’ve heard all about the blood and fire and animal sacrifices, the sweet spices of the incense, and the in-depth purification process of the priests in preparation for this awesome day.
And the day opens with all the pomp and ceremony you can expect – Moshe, as leader of the people; his brother Aaron, as High Priest, get started with their rituals with precision and intention.
Until we hear of another story, the lede buried among the spectacle of the dedication itself – that leaves us gaping in horror.
Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aaron, are devoured by a heavenly fire and burned to death, as they approach God (commentators say, the Holy of Holies) with an offering of incense, a “strange fire that God did not command”.
There are so many questions, so many various ways of reading this shocking and complex text.
There are those who read it on a pshat level – the plain meaning of the text.
The Torah tells us: there are rules in place. To make an offering in the Mishkan, in the Mikdash, on the altar, you need to follow the parameters. It needs to be within the realm of what God has commanded – nothing more, nothing less. You can be the child of the High Priest himself – but without fulfilling the precise directives of the blueprint laid out, you are misaligning yourself with the spiritual technology. By going out of bounds of what had been commanded, these young men were punished.
There are other ways of reading too, of course.
There’s drash – the way our rabbis and sages have expounded on texts over time, reading between the lines to fill us in with the rest of the story. They note how since the Torah moments later reminds us that wine and strong drink is not permitted to be drunk in the Sanctuary, it must be that this was the sin of the children of Aaron – that they offered their offering while in a state of intoxication.
And on a deeper level – that of remez – we learn that perhaps that state of intoxication was intentional on their behalf, a desire to get closer to the Divine by leaving behind all inhibitions, all external trappings that don’t allow us to feel our innermost selves.
Perhaps the children of Aaron had the highest of intentions – but something went wrong. The stage was set, the players were ready, and yet – when they brought their offering, something was amiss.
It was a strange fire.
Something unwelcome, not aligned.
What could it be?
Our Sages and commentators have spent millennia exploring this tale, and yet when I read it on that day six years ago, I started to feel less inclined to agree with the Torah’s condemnation of Nadav and Avihu, and had a little more sympathy for these wayward priests.
What’s wrong with wanting to get close? I wondered, as I narrated the story and read it aloud to an audience of hippies, hipsters and other Brooklyn misfits (though incidentally we were on the Upper West Side). What made the fire strange – out of context, incapable of being received here by the Divine?
I recalled the fourth level of interpretation – sod, the most mystical, expounded by one of my favorite commentators, Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, known as the “Ohr Hachayim”, an 18th century Kabbalist and Talmudist in Morocco and Jerusalem. The sons of Aaron, says the Ohr Chaim, were of the category of mystics, righteous ones who feel the approach of death, of their souls returning to their Source – and yet, they continued in their ritual, they allowed their souls to reunite with their Source, to be fully consumed in the “kiss of death”, a ‘religious intoxication’ that set aside their own personal agency to make conscious decisions.
I sat at that Shabbat table, and I felt aflame myself. I was at a crossroads in my life, though I didn’t yet know it. I was in the midst of transitioning from a life where alcohol consumption, loud music, career success and social status determined much of the world I lived in, even as I felt the tuggings of my soul that far preferred staring into candlelight, dancing barefoot in nature, and singing soul-stirring melodies til the wee hours. And as I wondered what it would be to take that step towards the flame and fire of Divine service, leaving behind the strange gods I had been worshipping, I was curious what would make a fire ‘strange fire’. Why couldn’t I just dive right in, into the magic, the mystery, the ecstasy?
I remember that question burning on my lips as I spoke to my newfound friends, not knowing that together we would begin journeying into spiritual realms that were new to me. We would sing until sunrise, we would pray down to our kishkes, and later, I would resume studying the mystical texts of Chassidic teachings that I had always loved.
It was there, in a teaching of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, whose teachings have nourished me since childhood, that I found the missing piece I’d been searching for in the abovementioned interpretations, in an understanding that I slowly came to in the following months and years since that passionate live reading.
The Rebbe’s interpretation alludes to the classic mystical dichotomy known as “Ratzo” and “Shov” – literally, “running” and “returning”, or as we might call it, ‘embodiment’ and ‘expansion’, or ‘immanence’ and ‘transcendence’.
It’s what we witness in a candle, the flames leaping up and reaching upward, yet continually grounded by the wicks that hold it in place. It’s the experience we have as humans every single day, as we reach out towards the infinite, wanting to go beyond ourselves, to connect with the fullness of the Great Mystery – and then find ourselves in our bodies, hanging out at home, wanting nothing more than a hot bath and a cup of tea.
It’s the experience of the mystic who also has to sit in traffic.
The challenge of the spiritual seeker who also needs to pay the rent.
And the struggle of the wannabe priestess or shaman who also grapples with addiction, desires, physical life reality that has a hold on that eternal ability to transcend.
But the thing is – we actually need them both, together.
The Shov with the Ratzoh.
The return back to our bodies, along with the aching need to go beyond them.
The expansion that happens in prayer and meditation, along with the physical hold our bodies have on us, that brings us back into the present moment.
We are spiritual beings in physical bodies; and physical beings with spiritual capabilities.
We are all and one at the same time.
But we are in bodies, and for a reason.
Unlike Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, our job is not to approach the heady, intoxicating scent of the Ketoret-incense offering and get up close and personal with God, so close that we forget to return.
Our job is to light the Ketoret, to offer the offerings – and do it all while remaining in our physical bodies, enhancing and expanding the Divinity found here, in this material world.
Our task is to experience the transcendence, feel the connection – and ground ourselves into our being-ness, knowing that we are simultaneously all of it.
It means meditating in traffic; praying before and after we eat; and taking on the embodied rituals that add a spiritual dimension to our physical existence.
It means creating the ecstatic moments, the spiritual ceremonies that bring us closer to that door of connection; while grounding ourselves in the body through the physical practices that unite the realms through the portal that is our body.
This past year, spending time in the home has become an opportunity for us all to tend the Mishkan, our Sanctuary within. Our homes, our bodies, our personal space, has all been an opportunity to learn how to care for the Divine within ourselves with intention, care and spiritual focus.
Now, we are coming out. We are dedicating the Mishkan, the Sanctuary we are building, and inviting the entire nation to join us. We are reconnecting with communities, gathering in public spaces again, revisiting our houses of worship and inviting friends into our homes.
It feels weird, it feels bizarre, it feels scary.
We could become consumed with the ecstasy of freedom, of the world of going outside of ourselves again, of connecting to the Divinity of the greater world. Living in the Ratzoh, in the running.
Or we could become stuck inside, afraid of what’s out there, wanting only to live in the Shov, in our homes that we’ve tended this long pandemic year.
My prayer is that we don’t turn into Nadav and Avihu, that we don’t allow a strange fire into our homes and communities at this time.
That we learn to expand while grounding.
That we continue to hold ourselves in our bodies, while reacquainting ourselves with the excitement of public musical events, group gatherings and social events.
I’m just as scared as you.
But as I remember my spiritual journey six years ago, reading this parsha, and questioning in wonder that I realize that it’s all in process already, and we are being given the teachings we need to get through this time.
May we be blessed to truly embody the Divine in our physical selves and our homes; to experience the Divine intoxication of ecstatic connection; and bring them all together.
May we expand, may we ground, and together, may we dedicate the Sanctuary, the Mishkan that is this world as a sacred space for Divine alignment.
Torah Reading for Week of April 4-10, 2021
By Rabbi Corinne Copnick, ’15
As a Torah portion, Shemini covers a lot of ground, and what it has to say about the food we consume affects Jewish people to this day. In other words, Shemini explains what we have come to call “Kashrut,” “The Kosher Laws,”– an outline of our dietary do’s and don’ts for everyday living, which Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews all interpret differently. A whole range of what we can and cannot eat at Passover is included in these laws too.
Despite the fact that her husband was a Labor Socialist with a dim view of God, my maternal grandmother always kept a strictly kosher home. But she refused to eat at my mother’s home. Why? Because my mother, who thoroughly enjoyed being an “acculturated” school teacher, did not keep a kosher home — even though she had been taught to do so by my grandmother. However, my grandmother would eat regularly at my home because I had not been taught to keep kosher. Also, she said, God would understand that it was important to be with her grandchild – her ainikel –and young family on Friday night. My grandmother’s God was very accommodating, stronger on rachamim than din. Of course, I kept special glass plates for my grandma and served her fruit salad, which was all she would eat, apart from the delicious cakes I bought from a kosher bakery with a heksher stamp.
Much later in my life, I was glad to learn that Los Angeles Torah educator (and political pundit), Dennis Prager, had simplified most of the kosher requirements expressed in Shemini into two simple rules: 1) Don’t eat animals that eat other animals, and 2) Don’t eat animals that are scavengers. Most important of all, of course, is the requirement to treat animals humanely, to slaughter them with the least pain possible, and the caution that, if we do eat meat, not to consume the blood of the animal. The ancient Israelites believed that the life of the animal – the DNA so to speak — was in the blood.
The rules concerning separation of milk and meat relate to a different text in the Bible – the prohibition about taking the chicks or potential chicks of the mother bird out of the nest while the mother bird is present. The idea is to avoid causing distress to the mother as much as possible. But there is a deeper concern. Milk represents life; it is considered life-affirming, whereas when we eat meat, it is dead. Dead meat. And so, according to Jewish reasoning, life and death should always be kept separate. Thus no milk and meat together. Some of my rabbinic colleagues have become vegetarian, in fact, so that they don’t have to think about whether or not they are keeping kosher appropriately when their congregants peek at their plates.
* * * *
For centuries, the laws pertaining to Kashrut were clear, but according to Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Kashrut has become both complex and controversial in modern times:
“A number of factors [have] contributed to the debate over kosher food during the last two centuries. Among those factors are massive acculturation, changes in food production including the industrialization of the making of foods, ‘new’ foods from tofu to genetically modified products, changing views of hygiene, the application of scientific method to kosher food inspection, mass marketing, the health food movement, new understandings of Jewish spirituality, and the recent growth of Orthodox Judaism to mention a few” (“You Are What You Eat: The New World of Kosher Food”).
Added to this is the fact that the kosher food business is BIG business in over 100 countries and, according to Forbes, accounting to food sales of over $12 billion under rabbinic supervision.
Until recent years, the Reform movement considered that kashrut was no longer binding on modern Jews, but it has come a long way since a non-kosher meal known as “the treifah banquet” was served in 1883 at Hebrew Union College. Jewish soldiers, by the way, were first granted an exemption from keeping kosher during World War I. Since 1979 and more especially since the second Pittsburgh Platform in 1999, the Reform movement has defined its policies with a new openness to traditional practices. Then, “in 2011, the Central Conference of American Rabbis published The Sacred Table…which presented “the possibilities of an ethical, health-based, spiritual approach to culinary culture in the Progressive Jewish Community today.”
Also, many Progressive Jews have become involved in observing “Eco-Kosher,” which Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi and Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s Jewish Renewal movement defined as “good practice in everyday life that draws on the deep well-springs of Jewish wisdom…. The fusion of the ancient with the post-modern.” Eco-kosher stresses respect for animals and concern for their distress, it is about not ruining the earth, not eating foods with carcinogens, not overusing tobacco and alcohol, avoiding anorexia, etc.; it stresses tzedakah, the sharing of food with the poor, and praising God for the earth’s bounty before and after a meal. There is a lot of emphasis on praying for rain, which, living in California, I particularly appreciate. Other links with the earth are clothing, energy, breathing (in regard to air pollution) and socially responsible work conditions. And of course, shmita, giving the earth a rest. All of these concerns may be summed up by the ethical principle of Tikkun Olam – Healing the World.
From My Jewish Learning
Parashat Shemini: When Silence is a Crime
According to one commentator, Aaron’s silence after the death of his sons only comes after he has finished crying.
BY RABBI ALON MELTZER
What is silence? The absence of noise? The ability to say nothing? Or is it the ignorance of the noise around us?
In Parashat Shemini, we learn of the silence that Aaron embraced after the death of his two sons, who had brought a “foreign fire” before God. The Torah then tells us: “Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the LORD meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.’ And Aaron was silent.”
The loss of children, the pain and suffering, and the eventual silence. What could be said in the face of such tragedy? What could be done?
The Ibn Ezra, a Spanish commentator from the 11th century, shares with us his view of what Aaron was thinking: “This is what God has told me. God has already told me that He will manifest His holiness through those who are near Him — even if they must suffer for it.” Aaron was silent, according to the Ibn Ezra, because he understood that this was the way it had to be.
The Sforno, an Italian commentator from the 15th, suggests that “Aaron consoled himself after having been told that the death of his sons represented a sanctification of the name of the Lord.” Aaron’s silence was thus an act of self-consolation.
Commentary after commentary follows a similar line — silence equals consolation, acceptance, and continuation. Life simply must go on.
The Ramban, the 12th century Spanish scholar, is seemingly alone in suggesting an emotional reason for Aaron’s silence: “And the reason that Aaron was silent was that he was crying loudly and fell silent.”
In the Ramban’s reading, Aaron cries, screams and shouts. And only once he has done all this is he silent. Once he lets the tears flow, once he releases his anger, he is able to fall silent.
Here is the Aaron of action, the Aaron that we know about, the Aaron who will be known as the “lover of peace” — and more importantly the “chaser of peace.” Imagine the conversation in Aaron’s mind: “God, what have you done to me? What good is it to me that You have taken my children away from me, despite my service to You? I will shout at You, I will scream at You, I will demand of You! Where is the justice? And now that I have done that, I will mourn by myself. I will fall silent, perhaps distance myself from You, perhaps grow closer to You, perhaps continue to serve You, or pass the mantle onto my children. But I will be silent.”
Aaron was so close to God that he could go on in silence. But what about us?
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the 20th century talmudist and philosopher, in his opening chapter of a book called Kol Dodi Dofek, which deals with the pain of the Holocaust and the eventual establishment of the State of Israel, writes regarding a person who experiences tragedy: “The halakhah [Jewish law] teaches us that an afflicted person commits a criminal act if he allows his pain to go for naught and to remain without meaning or purpose.”
Are we allowed to sit silently in the face of tragedy? Soloveitchik says no. To do so would be a tragedy in and of itself.
When we discuss the Holocaust, we say “Never again.” This statement does not turn back the clock and allow us to say that the world spoke up. Rather, history will always deem the world to have remained silent in the face of that tragedy — a criminal act, according to Soloveitchik.
But what about the tragedies of today? Too often we stay silent, thinking someone else will take action. Jewish tradition teaches us that each of us must stand up and take action. We must follow Aaron’s lead — we must scream, shout, protest and allow our emotions to drive us to action. Only then can we fall silent.
From Rabbi David Seidenberg
Why Mammals with Split Hooves?
From My Jewish Learning
The Time And Place For Spontaneity
The deaths of Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, teach us the value and also danger of spontaneous religious expression.
BY RABBI SHIMON FELIX
This week, we read the portion of Shmini, which means “the eighth.” It refers to the eighth day of the opening of the Tabernacle, which was actually its first real functioning day, after seven days of special inaugural rituals performed by Moses, Aaron, and the other priests.
On this ‘official opening day,’ Moses commands Aaron and the people to bring sacrifices to the Tabernacle, “for today God will appear to you,” which is, after all, the point of the Tabernacle.
Aaron and his sons prepare the animal sacrifices as they are commanded, and as hoped for, “…the glory of God was shown to the entire nation. And a fire went out from before God and consumed the burnt offering and the fats which were on the altar, and the entire nation saw, and celebrated, and fell on their faces.”
This moment, the climax of so much work and ritual, is what the Tabernacle was all about: the palpable presence of God, experienced by the entire people. The feeling one gets when reading this section is–it worked! They did it! All that effort paid off, and the people really experienced God’s presence.
A Strange Fire
Unbelievably, tragically, what happens next is this:
Now Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his pan and placed in it fire, and placed on it incense, and brought it before the Lord; a strange fire which he had not commanded them. And a fire went out from before the Lord and consumed them and they died before God. And Moses said to Aaron: this is what God was referring to when he said ‘with those close to me I will be sanctified, and before the entire nation I will be honored’, and Aaron was silent.
For centuries, commentators have debated the meaning of this story. What was the sin of Nadav and Avihu, what was the “strange fire” they offered, and why did they die because of it? What does Moses mean when he says “this is what God was referring to when he said ‘with those close to me I will be sanctified, and before the entire nation I will be honored?’” How could such a tragic event sanctify and honor God, and why did it happen on the joyous day of the opening of the Tabernacle?
I would like to focus on one specific aspect of this difficult story: What was Moses talking about when he said to Aaron, “This is what God was referring to when he said ‘with those close to me I will be sanctified?’” When did God say this, and what kind of sanctification did he mean?
Rashi quotes a Midrash that appears in the Talmud, which elaborates on Moses’s words. According to this Midrash, back in Exodus, along with the original commandment to build the Tabernacle, God said that the Tabernacle would be hallowed by His glory. At the time, Moses apparently understood this to mean that it would be hallowed by the death of God’s most glorious and respected followers.
Moses, in our parsha, after the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, tells Aaron that, until now, he had thought that God meant that either himself or Aaron, the two leaders of the people, would die, thereby, somehow, sanctifying and glorifying the Temple. But now that Aaron’s sons have died, Moses sees that they are in fact greater than their father Aaron or their uncle Moses, and were therefore chosen to sanctify the Tabernacle with their deaths. This is apparently intended as a kind of consolation to Aaron, who accepts it in silence.
The notion that someone great or important would die at the inauguration of the Temple, in order to somehow sanctify it, is a strange one, reminiscent of human sacrifice. Apparently, it indicates that the full force and profundity of God’s presence in the Tabernacle could only be communicated by the death of one of the leaders of the Jewish people — a dramatic indication of God’s might, and of the awesome nature of His Temple. If this is the case, why, indeed, were Moses and/or Aaron, clearly the greatest Jews available, not chosen to play that role? Why were Nadav and Avihu chosen, and wherein lies their greatness?
The Torah Tells Us All We Need to Know
To answer this question, I am going to assume that there is no secret, unknown story which explains their stature. I will assume that what the Torah tells us about Nadav and Avihu is all we need to know. If this is so, then all we know of them and their greatness is the fact of their offering “a strange fire, which they had not been commanded to bring” before God. This, apparently, is their greatness, and also the act that triggered their deaths.
If this is the case, and the act of offering an unbidden ‘strange fire’ before God places the sons of Aaron on some higher level than Moses and Aaron, then we must think a bit more about the nature of their act. It would seem that this spontaneous, voluntary, from-the-heart offering of incense is in some way more precious, more honorable, than the commanded rites performed so obediently by Moses and Aaron.
The impetuous, unbidden, unscripted act of the sons stands in stark contradistinction to the days and weeks of strict obedience to the specifics of God’s commandments about the building and operation of the Tabernacle on the part of the fathers. The values of spontaneity, imagination, and creativity, are privileged, according to Moses’s statement, above the values of strict obedience to the letter of the law. And yet, for acting on these values, Nadav and Avihu are killed.
This voluntary offering seems, therefore, to communicate two contradictory messages. On the one hand, when Moses states that Nadav and Avihu are greater than he and Aaron, he seems to underscore the value of spontaneity, creativity, and personal statement in religious activity. On the other hand, the death of the boys indicates that such an approach is dangerous, threatening, and, ultimately unacceptable in the Temple. The implication seems to be that there is value in their actions, but not when they are done in the Temple.
Outside the Temple confines, in some other unspecified area of religious life, the sensibilities which Nadav and Avihu represent are of value, and are to be cherished. This is what makes them ‘greater’ than Moses and Aaron, who, as obedient servants of God, lack these qualities. In the Temple, however, the immediacy and totality of God’s overwhelming presence necessitates the obedience of a Moses and Aaron–there is no room left for the creativity and spontaneity of Nadav and Avihu’s offering.
This is why Moses and Aaron were not chosen to sanctify the Tabernacle with their deaths–their mode of religious activity is appropriate to the Tabernacle. They have already learned to control themselves, and act in accordance with the demands of the immediate presence of God. It is Nadav and Avihu’s mode of religious expression, as precious as it may be, which is at odds with the supreme sanctity of the Tabernacle.
It may be that our challenge, today, is to try to determine exactly where and when such creativity and spontaneity is to be applauded and encouraged in religious life, and where and when it is to be condemned, and a more conservative, obedient, strict adherence to traditional norms of religiosity is called for.
It is important to note, I think, that this entire story is told in the context of fathers and sons–Aaron’s grief as a father who has lost his sons, Moses’s comforting him as a brother and uncle, it all very much feels like a family story. This seems to me to indicate that the issue we have discussed here is a generational one.
Aaron and Moses, the archetypal fathers/founders of the family/tribe, have a relationship with God and His laws which is typified by obedience, concern for detail, and letter-of-the-law compliance with the rules. Their children have a more personal, dynamic, from-the-heart (perhaps rebellious) relationship with the religion and its rituals.
This is seen by the “parents” — God, Moses, and, in his silent acquiescence, Aaron — as valuable and precious, but too dangerous to be central to the rite and ritual of the tribe. It belongs elsewhere, outside of the center. The Temple is not the place for this strange fire, and, therefore, they must be punished for deviating from religious norms in this holiest of places, thereby making it clear to the rest of the “children” that such behavior, while of tremendous value, is unacceptable at the center of the nation’s religious experience.
This really resonates for me as both a parent and a child. The difficult tasks of setting limits and educating for values on the one hand, while encouraging and being open to creativity and ‘different-ness’ on the other, is central to parenting. Hopefully, we can learn from Nadav and Avihu to value the personal, spontaneous gift from the heart, in our children, in others, and in ourselves, and find an appropriate place for it somewhere in our religious lives, and, in fact, in our lives in general.
Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.
From Rabbi Avram Davis
The parsha is Shemini and we are moving quickly toward Pesach. Shemini deals with the blood of sacrifice, kosher laws and the notion of what is Pure and Impure. Let us dwell for a moment on this last idea. Modern people are (I think), somewhat uncomfortable with idea of purity and impurity -especially as it applies to people or actions. The Torah tends to link pure/impure with actions related to everyday life. We touch or are touched by the wrong thing; we eat the wrong thing, we become impure. But what is purity really, in this context, or in modern life? I have no complete answer, even for myself. But I think it may have something to do with simplicity of view. Seeking to regain the simplicity and transparency that we see so clearly in our small children. But once puberty and advanced consciousness unfolds, it is difficult to regain that……wonder; that magic. The Torah is implying that by closing certain gates of the mind and opening others, we may more easily find a way back to a mind of glass. It’s tricky though, Gd knows. Good shabbos!
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Shabbat Shemini/ Yom Hasho’ ah
April 14, 2018 – 29 Nisan 5778
By: Rabbi Yael E. Saidoff
Today’s Parsha is Brought to you by the Number 8
Torah Reading: Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47
Haftarah Reading: 1 Samuel 20:18 – 42
As they on Sesame Street, today’s Torah piece is brought to you by the number 8. Shmini – or eighth, refers to the eighth day when the temple was consecrated.
We Jews are often big fans of the number seven: seven days of creation, seven days of mourning (the “shivah”), a wedding is celebrated with seven blessings, a seven year agricultural cycle, 7 (Biblical) days of Passover and Sukkot…
So you get the gist. Seven is an important number for Jews.
In Leviticus, the number seven comes up a lot with reference to the ‘seven days of consecration’ of the sanctuary… but what is also critical is, the number eight.
Our parsha opens with: “It came to pass on the eighth day . . . today, the Lord will appear to you.”
About this ‘eighth day’, the 16th C. commentator, Kli Yakar notes:
” The number seven represents the cycle of creation; the number eight represents the “circumference”, that which lies beyond the perimeter of time and space. This is why the Divine Presence came to dwell in the Israelite camp on the eighth day .”
In other words: seven is the number of the days of the week, signifying the measure of earthly time, but eight signifies the time and space beyond the human realm. The eighth day, is being wholly united with God’s direct Presence, FULL revelation – unmediated by the lens of the physical world.
Shmini falls during the period of counting the Omer. We count each day from the 2nd day of Passover until Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. This goes on for 49 days. Guess how many weeks that is (7 x 7!)? Each week of the omer corresponds to one of the lower seven Sefirot, the fundamental energetic components of soul (think periodic table for our souls). Each one of the weeks is another opportunity to repair and correct a particular aspect of our innermost selves.
We count for 49 days, however, it says in Leviticus 23:16 – “You will count for fifty days.” Why?
The Lubavitcher Rebbe addresses this question (Tanya I, ch. 36): ” The seven weeks of the omer, are like the seven days of consecration (of the sanctuary). They represent the spiritual achievement of man. The fiftieth day of the Omer is like the eighth day of the Sanctuary: It is the revelation which breaks in on us from the outside, the answer of God to our endeavors. The fiftieth day is Shavuot, the day when the Torah was revealed on Mt. Sinai. And that day is a foretaste of the revelation of the Messianic age.”
The Rabbis teach that there are 49 levels of consciousness to which we have access. However, there is also a 50th gate that awaits us all. This attainment lays beyond human understanding but not beyond possibility. 50 is beyond the natural order, just as 8 represents the same. These are both allusions to that which lies at the end of our journey of purification and consecration.
But, you can’t count to fifty without first counting to 49.
The seven weeks of the counting of The Omer are a special time for, ‘becoming’, for consecrating, cleansing and re-building of our personality. Using the Omer, we can connect step-by-step, to our inner components that will enable us to grow and mature.
The number seven represents our earthly existence, our time in this world. But, ultimately we arrive at the eighth day – the realm beyond this one. The commentator’s understand this to be the time of the Messiah. The eighth day continues and completes the perfection that we work towards in this life.
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
When Weakness Becomes Strength (Shemini 5778)
Have you ever felt inadequate to a task you have been assigned or a job you have been given? Do you sometimes feel that other people have too high an estimate of your abilities? Has there been a moment when you felt like a faker, a fraud, and that at some time you would be found out and discovered to be the weak, fallible, imperfect human being you know in your heart you are?
If so, according to Rashi on this week’s parsha, you are in very good company indeed. Here is the setting: The Mishkan, the Sanctuary, was finally complete. For seven days Moses had consecrated Aaron and his sons to serve as priests. Now the time had come for them to begin their service. Moses gives them various instructions. Then he says the following words to Aaron:
“Come near to the altar and offer your sin offering and your burnt offering and make atonement for yourself and the people; sacrifice the offering that is for the people and make atonement for them, as the Lord has commanded.” (Lev. 9:7)
The sages were puzzled by the instruction, “Come near.” This seems to imply that Aaron had until then kept a distance from the altar. Why so? Rashi gives the following explanation:
Aaron was ashamed and fearful of approaching the altar. Moses said to him: “Why are you ashamed? It was for this that you were chosen.”
There is a name for this syndrome, coined in 1978 by two clinical psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. They called it the imposter syndrome. People who suffer from it feel that they do not deserve the success they have achieved. They attribute it not to their effort and ability but to luck, or timing, or to the fact that they have deceived others into thinking that they are better than they actually are. It turns out to be surprisingly widespread, and particularly so among high achievers. Research has shown that around 40 per cent of successful people do not believe they deserve their success, and that as many as 70 per cent have felt this way at some time or other.
However, as one might imagine, Rashi is telling us something deeper. Aaron was not simply someone lacking in self-confidence. There was something specific that he must have had in mind on that day that he was inducted into the role of High Priest. For Aaron had been left in charge of the people while Moses was up the mountain receiving the Torah. That was when the sin of the Golden Calf took place.
Reading that narrative, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that it was Aaron’s weakness that allowed it to happen. It was he who suggested that the people give him their gold ornaments, he who fashioned them into a calf, and he who built an altar before it (Ex. 32:1-6). When Moses saw the Golden Calf and challenged Aaron –“What did these people do to you, that you brought upon them this great sin?”– he replied, evasively, “They gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”
This was a man profoundly (and rightly) uncomfortable with his role in one of the most disastrous episodes in the Torah, and now he was being called to atone not only for himself but for the entire people. Was this not hypocrisy? Was he not himself a sinner? How could he stand before God and the people and assume the role of the holiest of men? No wonder he felt like an imposter and was ashamed and fearful of approaching the altar.
Moses, however, did not simply say something that would boost his self-confidence. He said something much more radical and life-changing: “It was for this that you were chosen.” The task of a High Priest is to atone for people’s sins. It was his role, on Yom Kippur, to confess his wrongs and failings, then those of his household, then those of the people as a whole (Lev. 16:11-17). It was his responsibility to plead for forgiveness.
“That,” implied Moses, “is why you were chosen. You know what sin is like. You know what it is to feel guilt. You more than anyone else understand the need for repentance and atonement. You have felt the cry of your soul to be cleansed, purified and wiped free of the stain of transgression. What you think of as your greatest weakness will become, in this role you are about to assume, your greatest strength.”
How did Moses know this? Because he had experienced something similar himself. When God told him to confront Pharaoh and lead the Israelites to freedom, he repeatedly insisted that he could not do so. Reread his response to God’s call to lead the Israelites out of Egypt (Ex. chapters 3-4), and they sound like someone radically convinced of his inadequacies. “Who am I?” “They won’t believe in me.” Above all, he kept repeating that he could not speak before a crowd, something absolutely necessary in a leader. He was not an orator. He did not have the voice of command:
Then Moses said to the Lord, “Please, my Lord, I am not a man of words, not yesterday, not the day before and not since You have spoken to Your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” (Ex. 4:10) Moses said to the Lord, “Look, the Israelites do not listen to me. How then will Pharaoh listen to me? Besides, I have uncircumcised lips.” (Ex. 6:12).
Moses had a speech defect. To him that was a supreme disqualification from being a mouthpiece for the Divine word. What he did not yet understand is that this was one of the reasons God chose him. When Moses spoke the words of God, people knew he was not speaking his own words in his own voice. Someone else was speaking through him. This seems to have been the case for Isaiah and Jeremiah, both of whom were doubtful of their ability to speak and who became among the most eloquent of prophets.
The people who can sway crowds with their oratory are generally speaking not prophets. Often they are, or become, dictators and tyrants. They use their power of speech to acquire more dangerous forms of power. God does not choose people who speak with their own voice, telling the crowds what they want to hear. He chooses people who are fully aware of their inadequacies, who stammer literally or metaphorically, who speak not because they want to but because they have to, and who tell people what they do not want to hear, but what they must hear if they are to save themselves from catastrophe. What Moses thought was his greatest weakness was, in fact, one of his greatest strengths.
The point here is not a simple “I’m OK, You’re OK” acceptance of weakness. That is not what Judaism is about. The point is the struggle. Moses and Aaron in their different ways had to wrestle with themselves. Moses was not a natural leader. Aaron was not a natural priest. Moses had to accept that one of his most important qualifications was what nowadays we would call his low self image, but what, operating from a completely different mindset, the Torah calls his humility. Aaron had to understand that his own experience of sin and failure made him the ideal representative of a people conscious of their own sin and failure. Feelings of inadequacy – the imposter syndrome – can be bad news or good news depending on what you do with them. Do they lead you to depression and despair? Or do they lead you to work at your weaknesses and turn them into strengths?
The key, according to Rashi in this week’s parsha, is the role Moses played at this critical juncture in Aaron’s life. He had faith in Aaron even when Aaron lacked faith in himself. That is the role God Himself played, more than once, in Moses’ life. And that is the role God plays in all our lives if we are truly open to Him. I have often said that the mystery at the heart of Judaism is not our faith in God. It is God’s faith in us.
This then is the life-changing idea: what we think of as our greatest weakness can become, if we wrestle with it, our greatest strength. Think of those who have suffered tragedy and then devote their lives to alleviating the suffering of others. Think of those who, conscious of their failings, use that consciousness to help others overcome their own sense of failure.
What makes Tanakh so special is its total candour about humanity. Its heroes –Moses, Aaron, Isaiah, Jeremiah – all knew times when they felt like failures, “imposters.” They had their moments of dark despair. But they kept going. They refused to be defeated. They knew that a sense of inadequacy can bring us closer to God, as King David said: “My sacrifice [i.e. what I bring as an offering to You] O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise” (Ps. 51:19).
Better by far to know you are imperfect than to believe you are perfect. God loves us and believes in us despite, and sometimes because of, our imperfections. Our weaknesses make us human; wrestling with them makes us strong.
 Pauline Clance and Suzanne Ament Imes, “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.” Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, vol. 15, no. 3, 1978, pp. 241–247.
 There is a striking secular example: Winston Churchill had both a lisp and a stutter and though he fought against both, they persisted long into adulthood. Because of this, he had to think carefully in advance about his major speeches. He was fastidious in writing or dictating them beforehand, rewriting key phrases until the last moment. He used short words wherever possible, made dramatic use of pauses and silences, and developed an almost poetic use of rhythm. The result was not only that he became a great speaker. His speeches, especially over the radio during the Second World War, were a major factor in rousing the spirit
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
Radical Vegetarian Priests (Weekly Torah)
You could say it’s a downer month in the yearly cycle of Torah readings. Week after week of animal sacrifices. Daily offerings, celebratory offerings, court-ordered criminal atonement offerings, purification offerings; offerings for grieving, healing, birthing, house restoration, holidays and more.
Did everyone in ancient Israel enjoy the butcher show at the altar?
I don’t think so. In this week’s Torah reading, I see a story of resistance against animal sacrifice. My interpretation is not traditional, but found it using traditional methods
Parshat Shmini describes a terrible national tragedy on the opening day of the mishkan, the traveling wilderness tabernacle. The initial offerings and communal blessings go according to plan.
But two young priests, Nadav and Avihu, decide to improvise.
They prepare their fire-pans with fire and incense. They come forward and “offer in the presence of God a strange fire, about which they had not been instructed. Fire comes forth from the Presence of God and consumes them, and they die in the Presence of God” (Leviticus 10:1-2).
Why do Nadav and Avihu die? Torah does not tell us explicitly. So traditional commentators have looked for hints in nearby verses. Thus, they conclude:
Nadav and Avihu mean no harm, but get a little overly passionate about the occasion. After all, Moses eulogizes them with a compliment: they are “intimates of God” (Leviticus 10:3).
They party too heartily. Drink a few glasses of wine too many and lose focus. That’s why, after their deaths, God tells the High Priest Aaron, “Drink no wine…when you enter the tent of meeting, that you may not die” (Leviticus 10:8).
They take too much initiative, adding creatively to Moses’ instructions. After their death, God says, “Giving instructions for the rituals is in Moses’ hands!” (Leviticus 10:11).
But I have discovered a new theory. One that emerges in the light of contemporary eco-kosher consciousness.
Nadav and Avihu are protesting animal sacrifice. In solidarity with the animals, they throw themselves into the flames.
After their deaths, Moses reminds the priests to eat the meat offerings. “This is your portion of God’s offerings,” Moses says (Leviticus 10:13). But the priests still refuse to eat meat. High Priest Aaron says, “Given all that happened today, do you really think God would like us to eat this?” (Leviticus 10:19)
Moses backs down, but still wants to have the last word. So he reminds everyone: you can eat meat from animals with split hooves who chew their cud (Leviticus 11:1-3).
You know, I’m relieved to read hints of priestly discomfort with so much animal-killing. It would be odd to not to find it in Torah. The Hebrew Bible begins with appreciation of vegetarian eating: Adam and Eve are told to eat fruits, seeds, grains and greens (Genesis 1: 29-30). And towards the Bible’s end, vegetarianism is celebrated again: Daniel and his three vegetarian friends are healthier and smarter than their meat-eating colleagues (Daniel 1:10-17).
If I had broad authority, I would declare the week of Parshat Shmini “National Jewish Vegetarian Week.” Without that authority, I can only suggest: Honour Nadav and Avihu this week with a vegetarian meal. Don’t let their act of protest go unnoticed!
From Rabbi David Kasher
THE PATH OF HOLINESS – Parshat Shemini
What is holiness?
The concept of holiness (or ‘sanctity’) is central to Jewish theology, but commentators have struggled throughout the ages to give it precise definition. The word in Hebrew, kedusha (קדושה), has the connotation of ‘distinct,’ or ‘separate.’ Hence the first usage of the term in the Torah, to describe the Shabbat:
God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it (vaykadesh oto), because on it God ceased from all the work of Creation that he had done. (Gen. 2:3)
וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱלֹקים אֶת-יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אֹתוֹ: כִּי בוֹ שָׁבַת מִכָּל-מְלַאכְתּוֹ, אֲשֶׁר-בָּרָא אֱלֹקים לַעֲשׂוֹת.
Holiness also seems to have something do with closeness to God, who is the source of the sacred. This is the impression we get from the first appearance of the word in the Book of Exodus. In Moses’ encounter with the Burning Bush, God tells him:
Do not come any closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground. (Exod. 3:5)
וַיֹּאמֶר, אַל-תִּקְרַב הֲלֹם; שַׁל-נְעָלֶיךָ, מֵעַל רַגְלֶיךָ–כִּי הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עוֹמֵד עָלָיו, אַדְמַת-קֹדֶשׁ הוּא.
We continue to see references to holiness, here and there, throughout the Book of Exodus, and it becomes clear that this is a value to be pursued. So we are told that we are to be “holy people” to God (22:30), and even that the Israelites will be known as a “holy nation” (19:6).
Yet it is not until the construction of the Tabernacle and the appointment of the priesthood that holiness truly comes into center stage in the Biblical text. The Tabernacle, meant to serve as a dwelling place for God on earth, is called a mikdash, or sanctuary – literally a ‘holy thing.’ And the High Priest who will oversee the sacrifices offered there is to wear a golden headband, upon which we are told to engrave: ‘Kodesh L’Hashem’ – Holy to the Lord.
So by the time we enter Leviticus, which presents itself as entire book devoted to detailing the work of the priests and the rituals of the Tabernacle, we have fully entered into a religion of holiness. The sacrifices themselves are described, again and again, as ‘holy’; the inner chamber of the Tabernacle is ‘The Holy of Holies’; and the priests themselves, dressed in their ‘holy garments’ are the official representatives of this holiness. In fact, it is in our parsha that they receive the most explicit description of their role:
To distinguish between the sacred (hakodesh) and the profane, and between the impure and the pure. And to teach the Children of Israel all the laws that the Lord spoke to Moses. (Lev. 10:10-11)
וּלְהַבְדִּיל, בֵּין הַקֹּדֶשׁ וּבֵין הַחֹל, וּבֵין הַטָּמֵא, וּבֵין הַטָּהוֹר. וּלְהוֹרֹת, אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–אֵת, כָּל-הַחֻקִּים, אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ה אֲלֵיהֶם, בְּיַד-מֹשֶׁה.
It is clear by now that holiness is to be an essential feature of this new religious community. And it is equally clear that the priests will be the mediators of holiness, sanctifying themselves in order to enter into the holy place and carry out the holy rites on behalf of the people.
What remains unclear is what exactly this holiness is, and whether or not the people themselves will have any access to it. So far, holiness seems entirely outside of them. God is holy, the Tabernacle and its offerings are holy, perhaps the priests themselves are holy men – but all of these things stand at a distinct remove from the average Israelite. So how are they to fulfill the charge to become “holy people”? Is such a thing even possible?
The first indication that the Children of Israel will be able to move holiness from the priesthood into their own lives comes here in Parshat Shemini, with the listing of kosher and non-kosher animals. This is the first set of laws we have in Leviticus that do not directly tie back to the sacrificial rites. Instead, we get the categories of mammals, fish, birds, insects and reptiles that may or may not be eaten. The whole thing is rather technical and detail-heavy, until we come to the end, when we get this sweeping statement of the purpose of these dietary restrictions:
For I the Lord am your God: you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not make yourselves unclean through any swarming thing that moves upon the earth. For I the Lord am the One who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God: you shall be holy, for I am holy. (Lev. 11:44-45)
כִּי אֲנִי ה, אֱלֹקיכֶם, וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי; וְלֹא תְטַמְּאוּ אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם, בְּכָל-הַשֶּׁרֶץ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ. כִּי אֲנִי ה, הַמַּעֲלֶה אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לִהְיֹת לָכֶם, לֵאלֹקים; וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי.
The practice of keeping kosher, these verse make quite clear, is meant to sanctify the practitioner. Just as the priests have to carefully monitor what animals are offered in the temple and how they are prepared, so the whole Children of Israel will monitor what animals come in their bodies. Remember that the priests were supposed to teach the people how to distinguish between the pure and the impure, the sacred and the profane. Why was that necessary if the sacrifices were to be handled exclusively by those same priests? Yet now it is clear that the people will use what they have learned in order to make such distinctions in their own food preparation. One gets the sense that the body has become the new sanctuary, with every person treating their own mouth and stomach as a kind of mini-altar, upon which only holy things can be placed.
Holiness, then, has already made a remarkable transition, from the official realm of the Tabernacle, into the very personal sphere of eating. Through our food choices, we purify and sanctify ourselves. Here is the first hands-on method we, the common people, have for becoming holy.
Yet this is only a first step. For we have still not answered the question of what holiness is, and why we ought to seek it. Is sanctity really just about maintaining bodily purity? Eating is undoubtedly one of the basic human activities, but it seems unlikely that our entire quest for personal holiness would begin and end with food.
The careful reader of the lines above, however, will see that they are pointing us towards a much broader destination. For while the words, “you shall be holy, for I am holy,” are first stated here, they are most famously repeated further on, as the opening to Chapter 19:
Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the, Lord your God am holy. (Lev. 19:2)
דַּבֵּר אֶל-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם–קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ: כִּי קָדוֹשׁ, אֲנִי ֿה אֱלֹקיכֶם.
The language is almost the same. This time, however, the injunction to be holy like God comes as the introduction to an entire corpus of laws, one of the longest in the Torah, often referred to as – what else? – the Holiness Code.
The character of these laws, however, are surprising here in the middle of Leviticus. For they (mostly) do not focus on the sacrifices or purities and impurities. Instead they contain commandments like these:
You shall revere your mother and father… I am the Lord your God (Lev.19:3)
אִישׁ אִמּוֹ וְאָבִיו תִּירָאוּ, וְאֶת-שַׁבְּתֹתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ: אֲנִי, ה אֱלֹקיכֶם.
You shall leave the [the corner of your field, and the fallen fruit of your vineyard] for the poor and the stranger. I am the Lord your God. (Lev. 19:10)
לֶעָנִי וְלַגֵּר תַּעֲזֹב אֹתָם, אֲנִי ה אֱלֹקיכֶם.
You shall not steal. You shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another… I am the Lord. (Lev. 19:11-12)
לֹא, תִּגְנֹבוּ; וְלֹא-תְכַחֲשׁוּ וְלֹא-תְשַׁקְּרוּ, אִישׁ בַּעֲמִיתוֹ… אֲנִי ה.
You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind… I am the Lord. (Lev. 19:14)
לֹא-תְקַלֵּל חֵרֵשׁ–וְלִפְנֵי עִוֵּר, לֹא תִתֵּן מִכְשֹׁל; וְיָרֵאתָ מֵּאֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲנִי ה.
You shall not render an unfair judgment: do not favor the poor, nor show deference to the rich, with justice shall you judge your kinsman… I am the Lord. (Lev. 19:15-16)
לֹא-תַעֲשׂוּ עָוֶל, בַּמִּשְׁפָּט–לֹא-תִשָּׂא פְנֵי-דָל, וְלֹא תֶהְדַּר פְּנֵי גָדוֹל: בְּצֶדֶק, תִּשְׁפֹּט עֲמִיתֶךָ. אֲנִי, ה.
Respect; Charity; Honesty; Compassion; Justice – values such as these are all over the Holiness Code. Very lofty principles, to be sure… but what do they have to do with holiness itself? This body of rules seems more reminiscent of the laws we heard just after the revelation at Sinai, before we started dealing with the Tabernacle, than anything we have seen so far in Leviticus.
Yet that seems to be precisely the point. This is a return to a religion centered around Justice, the one we thought we were getting before we took a turn into the arcane realm of Holiness. For the priests have been, ever since the glory days of Mount Sinai and the subsequent downfall of our worshipping the Golden Calf, redirecting us away from the ethical message of the Covenant to a new, singular focus on Sanctity and the purity required to maintain it. Yet the Book of Leviticus, which starts off seeming to run wholeheartedly into the priestly realm, ends up slowly redirecting us back to justice – first by shifting the responsibility for maintaining holiness on to us through personal dietary laws, and then by redefining the very holiness we are to be seeking as: the construction of a just society.
However – and this is key – Leviticus never leaves holiness behind. The message is not: forget the sacred and focus on the ethical. Rather, the message is: true holiness is justice. We find the sacred and the pure not only in the Tabernacle, and not only in our bodies, but out in the real world, in living human society. We encounter holiness in the respect with which we treat one another, in the way we care for the most vulnerable among us, and even in the gritty work of resolving conflicts with fair laws. Holiness is not so mysterious, after all. For it is bound up in the pursuit of all the just principles that make for a well-functioning and compassionate society.
But wait – what about God? Does this vision of holiness not reduce the sacred to mere ethical humanism? Don’t we lose, in the midst of such pragmatic calculations, the transcendent encounter with Divinity that the priests had been so carefully cultivating?
No, not if the wording of Leviticus itself is to be taken seriously. For note that all the laws we listed end with the phrase, “I am the Lord your God.” Just so, the kosher laws were meant to keep us holy, “for I am holy.” And this is also the language of the Holiness Code: “be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” These practices are not merely good in themselves, but also because they serve as acts of imitating God. “Just as God is merciful and compassionate,” goes a Talmudic saying, “so you should be merciful and compassionate.” (Shabbat 133b)
This merging of Justice and Holiness is a radical move, but also a brilliant one – for at least two reasons. The first is that it resolves the problem we started with. That is, we knew that God was supposed to be holy, and that we wanted to become holy like God – but how ? What was this mysterious force called ‘holiness’ anyway? Now we have an answer. For if God’s holiness is intertwined with God’s justice, then we have a principle we can actually understand and attempt to emulate. We can actively seek holiness, even without intermediaries, because it is something that makes sense to human beings and directly applies to the world we live in.
But the other great advantage that this synthesis provides is that it addresses a classic tension in religious life. For there have always been some voices that preach service towards mankind as the primary goal of religion, and other voices that describe the ideal religious life as one of pure devotion to the sacred. What then, we are left to wonder, is the true spiritual path? Is it to go out to repair a broken world, or to stay intensely focused on clinging to God? The genius of Judaism was to figure out a way to answer: both. Both at once.
The Light We Make (Shemini 5777)
The great moment has come. For seven days – beginning on the 23rd Adar – Moses had consecrated Aaron and the priests. Now, on Rosh Chodesh Nissan, the time has arrived for Aaron to begin his service, ministering to the people on behalf of God:
It came to pass on the eighth day, that Moses called to Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel, and he said to Aaron, take a young bull for a sin offering, and a ram for a burnt offering, without blemish, and offer them before the Lord.
What is the significance of the “eighth day,” the phrase that gives our sedra its name? To understand the profound symbolism of the number eight, we have to go back to creation itself.
In the beginning, when all was “waste and void,” God created the universe. Day by day, the world unfolded. First, there were the domains: light and dark, the upper and lower waters, sea and dry land. Then there were the objects that filled the domains: the sun, moon and stars, then the fish and birds, and finally the land animals, culminating in mankind. Then came Shabbat, the seventh day, the day of limits and of holiness, on which first God, then His covenantal people, rested in order to show that there are boundaries to creation. There is an integrity to nature. Everything has its proper place, its ecological niche, its function and dignity in the totality of being. Holiness consists in respecting boundaries and honouring the natural order.
Thus, the seven days. But what of the eighth day – the day after creation? For this, we have to turn to Torah she-be’al peh, the oral tradition.
On the sixth day, God made His most fateful decision: to create a being who, like Himself, had the capacity to create. Admittedly, there is a fundamental distinction between human creativity (“something from something”) and Divine creativity (“something from nothing”). That is why human beings are “the image of God” but not – as Nietzsche argued – gods themselves.
Yet the ability to create goes hand in hand with the ability to destroy. There cannot be one without the other. Every new technology can be used to heal or harm. Every power can be turned to good or evil.
The danger immediately becomes clear. God tells the first man not to eat of the fruit of one tree. What kind of tree it was is irrelevant; what mattered was its symbolic function. It represents the fact that creation has boundaries – the most important being the boundary between the permitted and forbidden. That is why there had to be, even in paradise, something that was forbidden. When the first two human beings ate of the forbidden fruit, the essential harmony between man and nature was broken. Humanity lost its innocence. For the first time, nature (the world we find) and culture (the world we make) came into conflict. The result was paradise lost.
According to the sages, this entire drama took place on the sixth day. On that day, they were made, they were commanded about the tree, they transgressed the command and were sentenced to exile.
But in compassion, God allowed them a stay of sentence. They were given an extra day in Eden – namely Shabbat. For the whole of that day, the sun did not set. As it too came to a close, God showed the first human beings how to make light:
With the going out of the Sabbath, the celestial light began to fade. Adam was afraid that the serpent would attack him in the dark. Therefore God illuminated his understanding, and he learned to rub two stones against each other and produce light for his needs.
This, according to the sages, is the reason we light a Havdalah candle at the end of Shabbat to inaugurate the new week.
There is, in other words, a fundamental difference between the light of the first day (“And God said, Let there be light . . .”) and that of the eighth day. The light of the first day was created by God. The light of the eighth day is what God taught us to create. It symbolises our “partnership with God in the work of creation.” There is no more beautiful image than this of how God empowers us to join Him in bringing light to the world. On Shabbat we remember God’s creation. On the eighth day (motsei Shabbat) we celebrate our creativity as the image and partner of God.
To understand the full significance of this story, we have to go back to one of the great myths of the ancient world: the myth of Prometheus. To the Greeks, the gods were essentially hostile to mankind. Zeus wanted to keep the art of making fire secret, but Prometheus stole a spark and taught men how to make it. Once the theft was discovered, Zeus punished him by having him chained to a rock, with an eagle pecking at his liver.
Against this background can we see the revolutionary character of Jewish faith. We believe that God wants human beings to exercise power: responsibly, creatively, and within limits set by the integrity of nature. The rabbinic account of how God taught Adam and Eve the secret of making fire is the precise opposite of the story of Prometheus. God seeks to confer dignity on the beings He made in His image as an act of love. He does not hide the secrets of the universe from us. He does not seek to keep mankind in a state of ignorance or dependence. The creative God empowers us to be creative and begins by teaching us how. He wants us to be guardians of the world He has entrusted to our care. That is the significance of the eighth day. It is the human counterpart of the first day of creation.
We now understand the symbolic significance of the eighth day in relation to the Tabernacle. As we have noted elsewhere, the linguistic parallels in the Torah show that the construction of the mishkan in the wilderness mirrors the Divine creation of the world. The Tabernacle was intended to be a miniature universe, a symbolic microcosmos, constructed by human beings. Just as God made the earth as a home for mankind, so the Israelites in the wilderness built the Tabernacle as a symbolic home for God. It was their act of creation.
So it had to begin on the eighth day, just as Adam and Eve began their creative endeavour on the eighth day. Just as God showed them how to make light so, many centuries later, He taught the Israelites how to make a space for the Divine presence so that they too would be accompanied by light – God’s light, in the form of the fire that consumed the sacrifices, and the light of the menorah. If the first day represents Divine creation, the eighth day signifies human creation under the tutelage and sovereignty of God.
We now see the extraordinary and intimate connection between four themes: (1) the creation of the universe; (2) the building of the sanctuary; (3) the Havdalah ceremony at the end of Shabbat; and (4) the number eight.
The story of creation tells us that nature is not a blind struggle between contending forces, in which the strongest wins and power is the most important gift. To the contrary: the universe is fundamentally good. It is a place of ordered harmony, the intelligible design of a single creator.
That harmony is constantly threatened by humankind. In the covenant with Noah, God establishes a minimum threshold for human civilisation. In the covenant with Israel, he establishes a higher code of holiness. Just as the universe is the home God makes for us, so the holy is the home we make for God, symbolised first by the mishkan, the Tabernacle, then the Temple, and now the synagogue.
And it begins by the creation of light. Just as God began by making light on the first day, so in the ceremony of Havdalah we make light on the eighth day, the start of human creativity, and in so doing we become God’s partners in the work of creation. Like Him, we begin by creating light and proceed to make distinctions (“Blessed are you . . . who makes a distinction between sacred and profane, light and darkness . . .”). The eighth day thus becomes the great moment at which God entrusts His creative work to the people He has taken as His covenantal partners. So it was with the Tabernacle, and so it is with us.
This is a vision of great beauty. It sees the world as a place of order in which everything has its place and dignity within the richly differentiated tapestry of creation. To be holy is to be a guardian of that order, a task delegated to us by God. That is both an intellectual and ethical challenge: intellectually to recognise the boundaries and limits of nature, ethically to have the humility to preserve and conserve the world for the sake of generations yet to come.
In the midst of what can sometimes seem to be the dark and chaos of the human world, our task is to create order and light.
Shabbat Parashat Shemini
By: Reb Mimi Feigelson,
One More Word about Silence
Torah Reading: Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47
Haftarah Reading: Ezekiel 36:16 – 38
This Purim I adorned myself with a pair of pants, a skirt, a blouse and yet another skirt (draped as a toga) all bearing a black and white pattern of different sorts. I asked people to guess who or what I am. Most of the answers ranged between “a goddess” (the workman on the street after explaining to him why so many dressed up people were walking into Rabbi Artson’s home on what appeared to be a regular Friday morning), “Indira Ghandi” (a doctor and his mother-in-law – five minutes apart.), and “a newspaper that had been run over” (a friendly congregant where I heard the megillah being read). To all I responded, “That’s right!” Then their puzzled look, and then my smile while saying: “I’m a Rorschach test!!!” I will note that two Ziegler students actually did guess who I was with no added clues.
As the seven days after Purim still hold within them the light of Purim (as do the seven days after any holiday) I want to share with you what I now call “A Rorschach Torah”. Earlier this week, I walked into Rabbi Artson’s study and offered to share two new ways of looking at Aharon’s silence upon the death of his two sons, Nadav and Avihu. When I questioned his smile while listening he said, “We are so different in the way we see things”. I invite you to join in on our chavruta (partnered-learning) in explaining Aharon’s silence by offering four possible readings.
The Torah teaches us, at the conclusion of the inauguration of the Mishkan (tabernacle) Nadav and Avihu, two sons of Aharon Hacohen (Aron the priest), are struck by fire because they “offered a strange fire before God which He had not commanded them” (Vayikra/Leviticus 10, 2). A close reading of verses 1-2 will note that the phrase that repeats itself three times is “Lifnei Hashem / before God” They offered their offering “before God”, the fire that consumes them comes from “before God” and we’re told that they die “before God.” Moshe, in God’s name, says “I will be sanctified in those that come near to me” and Aharon’s response to this is silence (verse 3).
Rashi’s interpretation gleans from the Talmud and Midrash. The fire of Nadav and Avihu was indeed alien but they were actually being punished for earlier deeds. None the less, their death was a punishment and Aharon’s silence is explained as an acceptance of the Divine decree. For many years this explanation seemed to represent a pious response in the face of tragedy, and I found myself continuously hearing it particularly at funerals when the person’s death seemed untimely (a child, God forbid) or an especially righteous person.
Rabbi Artson’s reading can been seen hinted at in the Rashbam’s (Rashi’s grandson) interpretation, though differently nuanced. According to Rabbi Artson, Aharon was angry at God for what had happened, and could not serve or continue to perform any of his priestly duties. He stands in silence as a protest to God. The Rashbam says that this was indeed his feeling, but that is why Moshe says to him “I will be sanctified in those that come near to me” and thus he quiets his feelings and continues to serve.
My alternate readings are based on a story I heard twenty years ago from Prof. Benny Ish-Shalom.
Every summer Rav Kook (first chief rabbi of Eretz Yisrael, d.1935) and Rav Charlap (chief rabbi of Yerushalayim) would go for their summer vacation to Kiryat Ya’arim (right outside of Yerushalayim). One morning after they awoke, Rav Kook went outside and had a lengthy and animated conversation with the gardener about the trees, the plants and the soil. He then returned to their room and began to recite the shacharit prayers. As the evening began to descend Rav Charlap finally found the courage to question Rav Kook regarding the unusual behavior of that morning – why didn’t he begin with his morning prayers like every day and then go out and talk to the gardener?
Rav Kook responded: “When I woke up this morning I felt that if I prayed immediately I’d come to “klot hanefesh” (my soul would ascend to God) so I went outside and talked to the gardener, and only when I felt ‘grounded’ in this world did I come in to pray the morning prayers.”
I held on to this story from the moment that I heard it, as a precious gem. Well, until one morning ten years ago. It was Chol Hamoed Sukkot and I was on my way from my home in Yerushalayim to learn with Rabbi Mickey Rosen at Yakar. The distance is about a seven minute walk. I found myself thinking about this cherished story and realizing that I actually didn’t like it at all! I thought to myself: “If I were to wake up one morning and realize that when praying I would say “Shma Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad” (Hear Israel Hashem is our God, Hashem is one) and at that moment my soul would cleave to God, would I not do it? Would I hold myself back from that moment of union that I have been yearning for my whole life? I couldn’t understand why Rav Kook held back, why he denied himself from reaching that ultimate peak of union with God.
When I entered the sukkah, Rabbi Rosen was already learning. “Mickey, I have a problem with Rav Kook!” He looked up from his book and said, “Just sit and learn.” I did, but 5 minutes later I said, “Mickey, I still have a problem with Rav Kook!” to which he replied “Just learn”. But after another 10 minutes passed and another, “Mickey, I have a problem with Rav Kook” he realized that I wasn’t going to be appeased and that if he didn’t address my problem he would get no learning done either!
I shared with him the story and my new found dilemma. His response was immediate: “There are two ways to give a gift – one way is to give the gift that you think is the ultimate gift, the other is to give a gift that the recipient wants to receive. You think that to give your soul back to God is the greatest gift you can give Him, but what Rav Kook understood is that the gift that God wants to receive is our service here in this world. It was only when he could pray in a manner that would keep him in this world did he begin to pray.”
I have been walking with the story for twenty years and with Rabbi Rosen’s answer for the last ten. I cannot tell the story without it. While I honor the truth of it I cannot let go of my question: “Why did Rav Kook hold back, why did he deny himself from reaching that ultimate peak of union with God?” I believe I may be a descendent of Nadav and Avihu.
In Shmot (Exodus 24, 9) Nadav and Avihu ascend the mountain with Moshe, Aharon and the seventy elders. They see God. And now, in our portion, they are inside the Mishkan, yet again with the potential of “Lifnei Hashem” (before God).” How could they hold back? How could they not run in to the inner chamber with a personal offering to God?
I read Aharon’s silence in one of two ways:
The first, he is envious of his sons. They were able to allow themselves that peak moment – something that he himself yearned for, but as a leader of a people had to deny himself. His silence was an acknowledgement and approval of their act. And more so, a silence of self-denial, knowing that he would never be able to allow himself such a moment. If I am a descendent of Nadav and Avihu, then Rav Kook was a descendent of Aharon Hakohen.
The second way of reading: a silence that shouts recognition of failure. As a parent he failed to teach his children how to walk out of the Holy of Holies, how to walk away from “Lifnei Hashem” (before God). He knew how to be the high priest as well as being able to make peace among people. He knew how to ascend the mountain in Shmot and in our Torah portion to enter the inside of the inside, while also maintaining the ability to interact with worldly and mundane issues. But he didn’t have the answer that Rabbi Rosen had for me to offer his sons. Aaron is silent because he failed to protect his sons from their devotion to God and their spiritual quest.
Epilogue – 2016
On Purim this year I redressed myself with last year’s costume – a white dress that had my students blessings written all over it. Last year I was “the white spaces between the black letters” and they were invited to use the markers I wore as a necklace to define the “black letters” on the “white spaces” of my dress. This year I added to my costume a paper hat made from earlier drafts of my dissertation and went as “A Draft.”I alluded both to myself and to the previous writings of my students, as I invited them to add to what they wrote on my dress last year.
I have dedicated much of the last seven years of my life to writing a dissertation that reclaims Jewish funerals as the last chapter of our personal lives: “On the Cusp of Life: From Scared to Sacred—Reclaiming Jewish Funerals.” As we create the script of our own funeral, we are choosing “the mask we will wear” to complement our shroud-costume. The same white garment that the High Priest wears when he enters the Holy of Holies… I believe that the possibilities to mirror Aharon Hacohen and/or his sons are gifts of reflection and choices asking of us to add one more word to the “silence question.” Perhaps this is where the practice of practicing silence and refraining for talking on Shabbat stems from; and as we adorn ourselves in white Shabbat clothes we adorn ourselves in silence.
Before Shabbat silence descends upon us I am taking advantage of the moment to wish us all a Shabbat shalom.
By Rabbi Diane Elliot, ‘07
“Va-yehi ba-yom hash’mini…” It is on the eighth day that the dedication of the Mishkan, the desert Tabernacle, spoken into being by God’s desire to dwell amongst the Israelites and built with their heart-offerings, culminates in Aaron’s successful performance, for the first time, of his priestly service. After he performs all the offerings flawlessly, according to Divine direction, Aaron raises his hands to bless the people, and YHVH materializes as a density visible to all! Holy fire leaps forth to consume the offerings, a great joyous cry of relief rises from every throat and, as if with a single impulse, the whole people throw themselves upon the ground in awe.
Suddenly, in the midst of this ritual high drama, a shocking rupture occurs—Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s eldest sons, each place fire and incense upon their fire pans and bring “esh zara, strange fire,” before the altar. In an instant, they are consumed by the same miraculous Divine fire that, just moments before, had engulfed with favor their father’s offerings.
At this excruciating moment, Moses says to his brother, simply, “This is what God meant when saying, ‘Through those near to me will I be sanctified; before all the people will I be glorified.’ ” Aaron’s response? “Va-yidom Aharon, and Aaron was silent.” (Leviticus 10:3)
Rashi, the great 11th century Torah commentator, interprets Moses’ words as high praise for the spiritual attainments of Aaron’s sons. Moses is telling Aaron, Rashi posits, that it’s because of Nadav and Avihu’s “nearness” to God, their saintliness, that the final sanctification of the Mishkan has taken place through their deaths.
I want to hear the tone of Moses’ voice, to see his face. Have his eyes softened in empathy? Are they brimming with tears? Is he speaking gently, attempting to offer his brother some comfort in the face of unspeakable? Or is he impassive, majestic, still rapt with the elevated energy of ceremony, teaching his brother yet another lesson about the Torah order that is henceforth to govern Israel’s religious and communal life?
And what of Aaron’s silence? Does it signify, as the Biur (Naphtali Hirz Wessely, German, 18th c.) suggests, patience, resignation, and an inner peace that accepts his sons’ fate and receives with equanimity ol malkhut shamayim, heaven’s yoke? Or is Aaron’s a shocked, frozen, stunned silence? After all, God stayed Abraham’s hand when Isaac was upon the altar! Why now must these sons, these princes of the people, be sacrificed (drawn close), along with the bulls, rams, and goats?
Only once in my life have I experienced the sudden, shocking loss of someone with whom I was emotionally and spiritually bound up. It was not the loss of my child or close relative, but of my teacher, R. David World-Blank z”l, killed in a car crash at the age of 47. At the moment I received the news, it felt like being kicked in the gut and having my heart ripped open at the same time. I wanted to cry out, to writhe, but at the time, I was living in a shared household with people I didn’t know well, with whom I didn’t feel safe. So I kept silent as I tried to stay present and ride the powerful feelings and sensations of wrenching pain alternating with numbness and disbelief.
The psalmist cries out to God, “l’ma’an yizamerkha kavod v’lo yidom, Adonai elohai, l’olam odeka, So that my soul might sing Your glory and not be silent, YHVH, my God, I will forever thank you!” (Psalm 30:13) Here the quality of yidom is not a resigned or accepting silence, but a heavy-hearted silence that chokes off joyful song. Gratitude and praise, the psalmist suggests, can release the voice again, providing the antidote to this silence of despair.
But both the psalmist and Aaron know that this takes time. “Ba-erev yalin bekhi, v’la boker rinah, at night one lies down weeping, but with the dawn—joyful singing!” (Psalm 30:6) In the “dark night of the soul,” pain can be digested, and eventually transmuted into song. Aaron, ever more in touch with the human, fleshly realm than his God-centered brother, instructs Moses in this truth by refusing to eat the sin-offering within the sacred precinct on the same day that his sons have died. “Didn’t they, this very day, bring close their sin offering and their burnt offering before YHVH—and things like this befell me? Am I now to eat the sin-offering? Would YHVH approve?” (Leviticus 10:19)
Yom hash’mini, the “eighth day,” takes us beyond the pale of Creation, the familiar rhythm of seven, and into the realm of the Infinite, where the mysteries of life and death, of joy and loss, of elation and heartbreak, flow into one another in a single song of simultaneous love and awe. It’s not an easy realm for most of us to inhabit.
When such ruptures, such losses occur in our own lives, may we be gentle with ourselves, honoring the nights of weeping, the days of silence, and taking the time, as Aaron teaches, to allow words of praise and thanksgiving and blessing to find their way through our shattered hearts and gradually back into our mouths, where they teach us, bit by bit, to embrace the Vastness, the infinity, for which we each are a vessel.
Fire: Holy and Unholy (Shemini 5775)
The shock is immense. For several weeks and many chapters – the longest prelude in the Torah – we have read of the preparations for the moment at which God would bring His presence to rest in the midst of the people. Five parshiyot (Terumah, Tetzaveh, Ki Tissa, Vayakhel and Pekudei) describe the instructions for building the sanctuary. Two (Vayikra, Tzav) detail the sacrificial offerings to be brought there. All is now ready. For seven days the priests (Aaron and his sons) are consecrated into office. Now comes the eighth day when the service of the mishkan will begin. (Lev: 25:35)
The entire people have played their part in constructing what will become the visible home of the Divine presence on earth. With a simple, moving verse the drama reaches its climax: “Moses and Aaron went into the Tent of Meeting and when they came out, they blessed the people. God’s glory was then revealed to all the people” (9: 23).
Just as we think the narrative has reached closure, a terrifying scene takes place:
Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, took their censers, put fire into them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before God, which He had not instructed them to offer. Fire came forth from before God, and it consumed them so that they died before God. Moses then said to Aaron: “This is what God spoke of when he said: Among those who approach Me I will show myself holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honoured.” (10:1-3)
Celebration turned to tragedy. The two eldest sons of Aaron die. The Sages and commentators offer many explanations. Nadav and Avihu died because: they entered the holy of holies; they were not wearing the requisite clothes; they took fire from the kitchen, not the altar; they did not consult Moses and Aaron; nor did they consult one another. According to some they were guilty of hubris. They were impatient to assume leadership roles themselves; and they did not marry, considering themselves above such things. Yet others see their deaths as delayed punishment for an earlier sin, when, at Mount Sinai they “ate and drank” in the presence of God (Ex. 24: 9-11).
These interpretations represent close readings of the four places in the Torah which Nadav and Avihu’s death is mentioned (Lev. 10:2, 16: 1, Num. 3: 4, 26: 61), as well as the reference to their presence on Mount Sinai. Each is a profound meditation on the dangers of over-enthusiasm in the religious life. However, the simplest explanation is the one explicit in the Torah itself. Nadav and Avihu died because they offered unauthorized, literally “strange,” fire, meaning “that which was not commanded.” To understand the significance of this we must go back to first principles and remind ourselves of the meaning of kadosh, “holy”, and thus of mikdash as the home of the holy.
The holy is that segment of time and space God has reserved for His presence. Creation involves concealment. The word olam, universe, is semantically linked to the word neelam, “hidden”. To give mankind some of His own creative powers – the use of language to think, communicate, understand, imagine alternative futures and choose between them – God must do more than create homo sapiens. He must efface Himself (what the kabbalists called tzimtzum) to create space for human action. No single act more profoundly indicates the love and generosity implicit in creation. God as we encounter Him in the Torah is like a parent who knows He must hold back, let go, refrain from intervening, if his children are to become responsible and mature.
But there is a limit. To efface Himself entirely would be equivalent to abandoning the world, deserting his own children. That, God may not and will not do. How then does God leave a trace of his presence on earth?
The biblical answer is not philosophical. A philosophical answer (I am thinking here of the mainstream of Western philosophy, beginning in antiquity with Plato, in modernity with Descartes) would be one that applies universally – i.e. at all times, in all places. But there is no answer that applies to all times and places. That is why philosophy cannot and never will understand the apparent contradiction between divine creation and human freewill, or between divine presence and the empirical world in which we reflect, choose and act.
Jewish thought is counter-philosophical. It insists that truths are embodied precisely in particular times and places. There are holy times (the seventh day, seventh month, seventh year, and the end of seven septennial cycles, the jubilee). There are holy people (the children of Israel as a whole; within them, the Levi’im, and within them the Cohanim). And there is holy space (eventually, Israel; within that, Jerusalem; within that the Temple; in the desert, they were the mishkan, the holy, and the holy of holies).
The holy is that point of time and space in which the presence of God is encountered by tzimtzum – self-renunciation – on the part of mankind. Just as God makes space for man by an act of self-limitation, so man makes space for God by an act of self-limitation. The holy is where God is experienced as absolute presence. Not accidentally but essentially, this can only take place through the total renunciation of human will and initiative. That is not because God does not value human will and initiative. To the contrary: God has empowered mankind to use them to become His “partners in the work of creation”.
However, to be true to God’s purposes, there must be times and places at which humanity experiences the reality of the divine. Those times and places require absolute obedience. The most fundamental mistake – the mistake of Nadav and Avihu – is to take the powers that belong to man’s encounter with the world, and apply them to man’s encounter with the Divine. Had Nadav and Avihu used their own initiative to fight evil and injustice they would have been heroes. Because they used their own initiative in the arena of the holy, they erred. They asserted their own presence in the absolute presence of God. That is a contradiction in terms. That is why they died.
# # #
We err if we think of God as capricious, jealous, angry: a myth spread by early Christianity in an attempt to define itself as the religion of love, superseding the cruel/harsh/retributive God of the “Old Testament”. When the Torah itself uses such language it “speaks in the language of humanity” – that is to say, in terms people will understand.
In truth, Tenakh is a love story through and through – the passionate love of the Creator for His creatures that survives all the disappointments and betrayals of human history. God needs us to encounter Him, not because He needs mankind but because we need Him. If civilization is to be guided by love, justice, and respect for the integrity of creation, there must be moments in which we leave the “I” behind and encounter the fullness of being in all its glory.
That is the function of the holy – the point at which “I am” is silent in the overwhelming presence of “There is”. That is what Nadav and Avihu forgot – that to enter holy space or time requires ontological humility, the total renunciation of human initiative and desire.
The significance of this fact cannot be over-estimated. When we confuse God’s will with our will, we turn the holy – the source of life – into something unholy and a source of death. The classic example of this is “holy war,” jihad, Crusade – investing imperialism (the desire to rule over other people) with the cloak of sanctity as if conquest and forced conversion were God’s will.
The story of Nadav and Avihu reminds us yet again of the warning first spelled out in the days of Cain and Abel. The first act of worship led to the first murder. Like nuclear fission, worship generates power, which can be benign but can also be profoundly dangerous.
The episode of Nadav and Avihu is written in three kinds of fire. First there is the fire from heaven:
Fire came forth from before God and consumed the burnt offering . . . (9: 24)
This was the fire of favour, consummating the service of the sanctuary. Then came the “unauthorized fire” offered by the two sons.
Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before God, which He had not instructed them to offer. (10:1)
Then there was the counter-fire from heaven:
Fire came forth from before God, and it consumed them so that they died before God. (10:2)
The message is simple and intensely serious: Religion is not what the European Enlightenment thought it would become: mute, marginal and mild. It is fire – and like fire, it warms but it also burns. And we are the guardians of the flame.
 Midrash Tanhuma (Buber), Acharei Mot, 7.
 Vayikra Rabbah 20: 9.
 Midrash Tanhuma, ibid.
 Yalkut Shimoni, Shmini, 524.
 Midrash Tanhuma, ibid.
 Midrash Aggada (Buber), Vayikra 10.
 Vayikra Rabbah 20: 10.
 Berakhot 31a.
Rabbi Yehuda Hausman
The God of Winter
Torah Reading: Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47
Maftir Reading: Numbers 19:1-22
Haftarah Reading: Ezekiel 36:16-38
A winter’s sun can give off much light but little warmth. The day may be radiant with bright snow and brilliant sky, but still we plod along with our shoulders pinched, teeth clenched, gloved hands buried deep in our pockets. Holiness can often feel like the sun in December, akin a menorah, we seem not meant to benefit but to ache for its light and, more so, its heat.
It is evident from this week’s Torah portion that Nadav and Avihu must have pined for holiness. It was not enough that they were priests and thus they ranked among the elders of Israel (Lev. 9.1). It did not suffice that they assisted their father, Aaron the High Priest, on the sacred day of the Tabernacle’s inauguration. From the beginning of the Torah portion, we are told pointedly and repeatedly of their full participation on that auspicious day. ‘They brought the blood… and delivered to Aaron the burnt offering…’ (Lev. 9.1,8-20). Still they yearned to draw closer. So the sons of Aaron, “took each his censer, and placed in them fire and laid incense upon it; and they brought-near alien fire before the Lord” (Lev. 10.1).
What happens next is strange on many counts. “And there came forth fire from before the Lord, and consumed them, so they died before the Lord” (10.2) It is not clear if this fire comes down from heaven, or emerges from the Holy of Holies. What is clear is that this second fire differs drastically from the first fire mentioned just a few verses above: “A fire went out from before the Lord to consume upon the altar the burnt-offering and fats” (9.24). This first flame contained heat, so much heat, that the day’s offerings, which had been roasting slowly on the altar’s normal flames, were consumed in an instant (R. Dovid Tzvi Hoffman).
In contrast, the flames that consume Aaron’s sons contain no heat. Each soul is devoured but it is a fire that leaves flesh and garments intact. Moses instructs two Levite cousins to remove the bodies from the Sanctuary, “So they drew near, and carried them by their tunics out of the camp” (10:5). There are no singed garments or seared skin. (see Rashi.) The tragic turn of events drips with irony. Aaron’s sons sought unsanctioned fire to “warm” themselves; measure-for-measure, the fire that took them was devoid of any heat.
If we consider the nature of holiness in the Torah, it consistently suggests hierarchy and degradations, the further away we stand the less intense the flame. God descends to Mt. Sinai in fire (Ex. 19.18). Someway down the mountain, Moses stands between God and the Elders, the Elders, in turn, stand between Moses and Israel, and the camp of Israel forms a boundary between the Mountain and mankind. The Sanctuary is no different. There is a courtyard around God’s dwelling place. The Levites encircle the courtyard and Tent of Meeting. The Israelite camp forms a ring around the Levites, and around Israel, there dwells the great mass of humanity. In our day, we think of the hierarchy as ‘Temple, Jerusalem, Promised Land, and Diaspora.’ But even the animal kingdom is divvied up in Leviticus. All of humanity can enjoy every kind of fish or fowl, critter or quadruped. But judging by the list rendered at the end of Parashat Shemini, only a tenth of those can be eaten by Israel, and of that tenth only a small portion is rendered fit as a sacrifice before the Lord. Clearly, proximity would mean a great deal, as God’s aura emanates from a central place. But before we conclude thus, consider Nadav and Avihu, who even before the presence of the Lord felt a sort of chill.
Such may be the strange fire of Godliness, near yet apart; the bush burns but does not burn; once, Israel experienced a fire upon the mountain, but the mountain was not ablaze. Long ago, there was an eight-day miracle, the wicks drew oil, formed teardrop flames, hour-upon-hour passed, but the wicks were not consumed.
If one message may be derived from our studies, perhaps it is this. We can only prepare ourselves for holiness, akin the Israelites who cleansed themselves, in body and spirit, before Revelation; or through careful ritual, as the priests and people performed before the Sanctuary’s Inauguration. In the meanwhile, till that bright light suddenly erupts in warmth, there is only the longing, as winter waits for spring.
From the Maqam Project</strong>
From Rabbi Fern Feldman
The big vav in Parshat Shemini–Cutting across all categories of being
By Rabbi Fern
Sunday, April 7th, 2013
In Parshat Shemini, Leviticus 11:42, the Torah tells us that we shouldn’t eat “Kol haholech al gachon”, “any creature that crawls on its belly”. The word for belly, gachon is spelled with one letter much larger than the others—it has a big vav. This is one of 16 or more letters in Torah (depending on the tradition of the scribe) that are written larger or smaller than the rest.
Whenever we see one of these letters, we have to wonder what the message is. We can start by realizing that the Torah is trying to get us to pay attention to the topic at hand— the large vav in the word for belly points to the importance of being mindful of what we put in our bellies. And especially when we are talking about animals, knowing that we cannot eat every animal helps us be aware that not everything in creation is here for our benefit as humans—as Maimonides teaches, every being has its own inherent worth.
But this particular large letter is more crucial than most. The Talmud (Kiddushin 30) tells us this vav is middle letter of the Torah—that is, it is the very center of the whole Torah. So perhaps we are to learn that what we put in our bellies is central, literally. And understanding that not everything is here just for us, means that we are not the center of the universe. (In fact, the letter vav is the center.)
However, when one actually counts the letters of Torah, this vav is close to 5,000 letters off from center. There are various explanations of why that is–[the Talmud records a conversation between two sages who say they can’t figure it out because they don’t know enough grammar to tell when certain letters should be included or not but that wouldn’t account for as big difference as there is. Some say our vav is middle letter of the Torah if you spell out each letter’s name, and then count those letters.] But in any case, it seems this teaching is there to tell us something other than its literal meaning —but what?
The tradition finds it important to tell us this letter vav in the word “belly” is the belly of the Torah.
If Torah has a belly, it is a creature. We already tend to think of Torah as alive– the book of Proverbs, and our liturgy, calls Torah the Tree of Life. The blessing we say after Torah reading gives thanks for a Torah of truth, and parallels it with eternal life being planted within us. The rollers that the Torah scroll is wrapped around are called atzei chaim, trees of life. From this, we get the idea that the Torah is a dynamic living organism, a plant. But in addition, the Torah’s parchment is animal hide. The Torah could be called a living animal too—an animal with a belly in its middle. Like an animal, it grows, loves and is loved. So we can see the Torah as both plant and animal.
But the teaching we are looking at here is coming from the actual physical letter vav, in it being made bigger than the rest. Torah ink, made partially from soot, or carbon, which by tradition can be produced either from the burning of plant or animal matter, is not long-lasting enough without the addition of something we consider inorganic, either iron or copper. This inorganic matter, this ink, is teaching us something. It is the very physicality of the letter, not the meaning alone, which gives over the teaching. The vav, by being bigger than the other letters, is communicating with us. The letter is not there just to represent some meaning that corresponds to it, it is teaching us something through its material presence. The nonrepresentational existence, in itself, of the letter vav teaches we humans. And it is teaching us that matter has agency. The vav is reminding us that the Torah is material. Not only does it have a body, and a belly, but its body is made of animal, vegetable, and mineral. And of all of those, the one that speaks to us the most directly is the ink, the mineral.
In the Torah’s existence as animal, vegetable and mineral, it crosses what we think of as the fixed boundaries between different types of created beings. This undoes the separations that are so common in Jewish thought, between four different domains: the domem, or silent, that is, minerals; the tzomeach, or sprouting, that is, plants; the chai, or living, that is, animals; and lastly the m’daber or speaking, that is, in this system, the human. These four categories are often seen as a hierarchy of levels of awareness, with increasing sacredness and value, placing the speaking ones, ostensibly just the humans, at the pinnacle of the system. But the Torah is a living entity, and its very being cuts across all categories of being. When carbon and iron, tree and animal make one living entity, known as Torah, and it speaks to us, when we pick the Torah up in our arms, touch it, kiss it, bless it, read from it, we are drawn into its reality, we enter the realm of its being. We then can become much larger than our individual selves, aware of the multiple worlds that are within and around us, and we become capable of experiencing the interconnectedness, the woven-ness-into-being that is the source of all, and is all.
Torah Reading for Week of March 31-April 6, 2013
“The Temptation of New Beginnings”
By Rabbi Min Kantrowitz, ‘04
Parasha Shemini, constituting Lev 9:1-11:47, is unusual in many ways. This is the only parasha named after a number–eight! Why is ‘eight” important? And what does the number eight have to do with the two important thematic issues that constitute the majority of this Parsha– the mysterious deaths of Nadav and Avihu and the detailed laws of kashrut (keeping kosher)?
We know that seven is the number of completion in Jewish tradition. There are seven days in the week and the seventh day is Shabbat, the day of rest. In traditional Jewish weddings, the bride circles the groom seven times under the chuppah (wedding canopy). In Jewish funerals, the procession from funeral coach to gravesite stops seven times. The number seven figures prominently in delineations of Jewish time — the seven weeks of Counting the Omer, and the Sabbatical year marking the seventh year when the land rests and is renewed. But what about eight? Just as ‘seven’ refers to completion, ‘eight’ is associated with new beginnings. A brit milah (circumcision) is conducted on the eighth day of a young boy’s life, after completing a week as an ‘unaffiliated’ infant, he is brought into the covenant and his new life as a Jew begins on the eighth day. After the 49 days of counting the seven weeks of the Omer, the 50th day, the beginning of the eighth week is Shavuot, when we celebrate receiving Torah…marking a radically new spiritual beginning!
Leviticus 9:1 tells us that Aaron and his sons have spent seven days being ceremonially prepared by Moses for their new priestly duties. The seven day training period having been completed, on the eighth day they step into their new roles.
New beginnings offer opportunity and freedom. The next section of our Parsha illustrates the potential dangers of freedom, as Nadav and Avihu, two of the four sons of Aaron who has just been invested into priestly service, perform some undefined ritually inappropriate act, and are killed. Be careful with new beginnings, this parsha is telling us. Whether religious zealotry, misguided ritual passion or strong drink were the contributing factors is irrelevant. The fact is that new opportunities have both positive and negative potential. We are being reminded to handle new responsibilities thoughtfully, considering implications and understanding boundaries.
The parsha continues with details about kashrut, the “fitness” of the food we consume. It details which kinds of animals and insects are permitted, describing their physical characteristics with anatomical details that are to help us discern what is and is not appropriate food.
Why do these details about kashrut follow the story of Nadav and Avihu? Their story is a warning about the potential dangers of a spiritual journey; Nadav and Avihu were explorers who overstepped their bounds. It is fitting, then, to follow this narrative with the laws of kashrut which are designed to guide our steps … to set up boundaries within which we can safely explore. Having experienced the tragic consequences of actions based on passion without appropriate limits, the necessity for boundaries becomes clear. The last verse of the Parsha reminds us: “To distinguish between the impure and the pure.”
New beginnings are exciting, but can be dangerous. Recognizing the wisdom of boundaries can help keep us spiritually nourished and safe. May we all step into our new beginnings well trained, spiritually prepared, and honoring appropriate boundaries.
Torah Reading for Week of April-15-21, 2012
“And the World Was Silent”
By Rabbi Cecilia Herzfeld-Stern, ‘11
Fire and silence. In a strange way, they go together. There is power in fire, in its capacity to create, or transform, as well as to destroy. Depending upon the outcome, we are transfixed in a silent awe or horror. At such times, we are rendered speechless, and silence seems to be the only response we can have. But is it always?
The image of fire is used dramatically in biblical narratives to convey G-d as Creator or Destroyer. This week’s parsha, Shemini, contains an especially enigmatic example:
The sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, each took his fire pan, put fire in them, placed incense upon it, and brought it before HaShem [the unspeakable Name of G-d], an alien fire HaShem had not commanded them. A fire came forth from before HaShem and consumed them; and they died before HaShem…and Aaron was silent (Lev 10:1-3)
Though biblical commentary is replete with numerous speculations about the strange fire, and inadequate explanations for why G-d would make “burnt offerings” of his priests, only Rashi, the great medieval commentator, addresses Aaron’s silence directly. He wrote: “He [Aaron] received a reward for this silence. And what was it? That a divine utterance came to him privately.” What could Rashi mean by this? How can one be “rewarded” for a response of silence to the horrific death of his sons? And, what is this “divine utterance”?
Biblical commentary always begins with the Hebrew. Noted German theologian and biblical scholar, H.F.W. Gesenius, in his Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament, extrapolates on the Hebrew word yeedom, translated as silent or “hold his peace” in this verse:
“This root [d-m-m] is…an imitation of the sound of the shut mouth (hm, dm)…to be dumb, applied both to silence and quietness, and to the stupefaction of one who is lost in wonder and astonishment; in the causative and transitive conjugations, it is applied to destruction and desolation, inasmuch as things or places which are destroyed and made desolate, are still and quiet.”
Again, silence has a different quality dependent upon the experience. Aaron’s initial silence might have been shock at his sons’ creative fire offering (an “alien fire G-d had not commanded of them”) becoming a destructive burnt sacrifice of them. Perhaps the “stupefaction” gave way to “stillness” or “quiet,” in which Aaron was “rewarded” with the divine utterance of G-d that the prophet Elijah later heard, kol d’mamah dakau, literally the “sound of silence” (I Kings 19:12). Perhaps, this place brought Aaron divine comfort and strength in his grief, as the psalmist wrote: “Truly my soul waits quietly (d’umeeyah) for G-d…Truly G-d is my rock and deliverance, my haven; I shall never be shaken” (Ps 62:1-3).
As we make our way through this text, we are reminded of another “strange fire”—in this week’s commemoration of Yom HaShoah. We are reminded of the silence, the shock, the “stupefaction” of the world, “lost in astonishment to the destruction and desolation,” that defied any human comprehension. The human mind still tries to make sense of what is incomprehensible, when silence is the most appropriate response. As the late Slonimer Rebbe* expressed so poignantly:
“A person’s heart and brain are incapable of grasping what happened here [in the Shoah]. There is no expression for this, for natural human emotions are too inconsequential to feel pain of such breadth and horrible depth. Only mute silence, as it says, ‘And Aharon was silent,’ expresses our crushed hearts, better than any expression, which is not appropriate or correct for such a matter.”
(Al Hahashmada v’haChurban)
*(Almost all of the Slonimer Hasidim in Belarus, Europe perished during the Shoah.)
Perhaps, Aaron’s initial silence of his “crushed heart” gave way to the silence of his faith—where the prophets heard the Divine Utterance. Biblically, this inner guidance always led to outer action. G-d would not leave the prophets alone until they spoke out against the injustices of their times. And, so, too, our initial shock to atrocities in the world needs to give way to appropriate action.
The world’s silent response to the Shoah was deafening and oppressive. As Nobel Peace Prize survivor Elie Wiesel wrote:
“The victim suffered more…profoundly from the indifference of the onlookers than from the brutality of the executioner…It was the silence of those he believed to be his friends—cruelty more cowardly, more subtle—which broke his heart…If this is the human society we come from—and now are abandoned by—why seek to return?”
There were few who were able to hear the stories so necessary for healing. Once the world was finally ready to listen, there has been a continuous outpouring of unending grief—too overwhelming for our fragile psyches to confront, much less address. Yet, confront and address it we must. What we do not face and deal with, rules our lives—collectively as well as individually. The Shoah represents the worst, and perhaps even the best, of what we, as human beings, are capable. We need to look at, and remember, it all.
The Shoah is receding into history, into the recesses of our forgetfulness, soon to be a distant memory, to which we cannot relate. Rather than surrender it to the many simplistic clichés that already accompany its residence there, we need to engage with the struggles we have with this history. Our initial shock of silence to atrocities in the world needs to give way to appropriate action. Numbing silence can fuel destructive fires. The divine utterance of wisdom can lead to tikkun olam, the repair of the world. May we have the courage to listen and respond to the deafening silences of the world.
From the American Jewish World Service
Parshat Shmini 5772
Aaron’s delicate attention to the ritual facilitates a powerful spiritual epiphany for the entire people. We are told that God’s glory and fire appears, ‘And all the people saw and shouted with joy and fell on their faces.’1
The text hints towards a tightly woven dynamic between the high-priest and the beneficiaries of the cultic practice—the ‘am.’ In fact, the word am—people, appears eleven times in this section. While Aaron and his family perform the ritual, the text alludes to the idea that there is no rite without the people. The priests may reach towards the Divine, but the Divine is only contained in the face of the entire collective.
This idea may shed new light on the mystery of what caused one sacrifice to go horribly awry. Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring an ‘alien fire’2 to God. In an unforeseen twist, the fire that exalts the people a few verses back becomes lethal, consuming Nadav and Avihu. Epiphany becomes trauma.
Commentary on this incident has often focused on the “alien” nature of the fire, interpreting the case as a warning against stepping beyond the confined structure of the sacrificial ceremony. However, the interplay of the individual and the collective in the text points to an alternative understanding. Nadav and Avihu’s actions are described in the third person plural—“they” took, put, placed and brought3—with the exception of the words “ish machtato—each man took his fire pan.”4 This sudden focus on the singular, ish, contrasts with the notion of a plural am so prevalent in the previous section, suggesting that Nadav and Avihu do not seek an experience for the collective; rather, they are driven to seek God alone—each man for himself.
Moreover, the reference to each man’s fire-pan conjures a sense of a container that is the perfect size for an individual. While the altar on which Aaron sacrificed was extended to include the large and powerful am as a receptacle for the Divine, the pans of Nadav and Avihu stood alone, not large enough to contain the tremendous revelation. While God’s fire and revelation may be transformative when it is absorbed by a group, for two individuals, it is destructive.
This interpretation is reinforced by Moshe’s response to the calamity. He cites God: “This is just what the Lord spoke, saying, ‘Through those close to Me shall I be hallowed; And in all the people’s presence shall I be honored.’”5 Moshe seems to be saying that in cultic practice there is a fundamental indivisibility between the priests and the greater people. God’s presence may be brought down by the priests, but it needs to be contained by the larger community.
This is not to say that there is no space in Judaism—or in our own lives—for one’s individual journey. But perhaps the tale of Nadav and Avihu may invite us to consider the weight we have come to place on individual experience often to the exclusion of the collective. When we engage in social action, are we always sure to direct our efforts toward the needs of the community and the greater good or do we sometimes do it just for the rush of good feeling or other self-serving motivations?
In South Africa, where I live, there are homeless people on virtually every street corner. I find it hard to drive by without offering some coins or food. However, this act of tzedakah alone does little to change the system of rich versus poor. If I am honest, this act of giving is quite a superficial way to address poverty and is more about my own discomfort with being a person who has so much facing those who have so little. My false sense of doing good lulls me into the feeling I have taken action to address poverty. In dealing with poverty at this level, my conscience is alleviated and momentarily I don’t feel so uncomfortable with the current status quo. Ironically, my act of giving helps me avoid tackling the deeper systemic change that is required.
Whether it be in tzedakah, service or advocacy, if we move from a consciousness of ish to one of am, we are compelled to consider the wider systems very carefully before intervening. In this way, we ensure that our actions serve the needs of all involved. This does not diminish our impact; in fact, it has the potential to widen and deepen our capacity to really make a contribution.
Nadav and Avihu leave us with a sense that perhaps something is lost when our focus shifts from an interplay between the individual and the collective to a pure focus on ourselves. If our consciousness remains focused at the level of ish, our capacity to transform ourselves and the world around us becomes diminished. However, if, like Aaron, we can balance our dance between ish and am, we have a chance at helping to create a world where everyone has access to the joy beheld by the people in Parshat Shmini.
1 Leviticus 9:24.
2 Leviticus 10:1.
5 Leviticus 10:3.
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
March 25th, 2011
Building of the Mishkan completed [sanctuary]
seven days of installation
– the Shekhinah
had not yet appeared [Lev.R.11:6]
slipped into his robes.
God the King
Moses the King’s attendant
Israel the Queen
Aaron the Queen’s attendant –
working from the lower world
so to speak.
Aaron lighting the candles
take hold the flame
upward the fire flying.
See Aaron standing on the limestone
raise high the flame
the flame of guardianship.
Aaron tender of the flame
which is like the soul
the lamp of God the soul
of a human being, [Prov.20:27]
Aaron the tender of souls on fire
he loved all creatures
and drew them near to Torah — [Avot 1:12]
so it was
Moses knew it would be through Aaron
that the Shekhinah would come to rest
in our Sanctuary, saying –
my brother is more excellent than I
through his sacrifices
and his service
the Shekhinah will rest among you. [Rashi on Lev.9:4, JT, Yoma 1:1]
See the blue around the flame
the space that may –
may not be physically present,
the blue that represents Shekhinah
which is like lapis
like the color of the sea
which is like the sky
something like the color of the Throne of Glory –
like a vision.
D [1/2] E-flat  F  G
Every Shabbat has a musical firgure associated with it
Hebrew cognate maqom
From The American Jewish World Service
At times, I find that my fellow social justice activists are tired. Tired from the barrage of need they face daily. Tired from the uphill battle against intractable social problems. Tired from the wearing down of their expectations that sustainable change is possible. Eventually, their emotional capacity for social justice work becomes exhausted. Sometimes it seems that the more they commit to fighting for social justice, the more vulnerable they are to being consumed by an overwhelming feeling of helplessness.
We find a striking parallel to this phenomenon in the story of Nadav and Avihu in Parshat Shmini. Immediately following the inauguration of Aaron and his sons,1 something strange and tragic occurs. In Leviticus 10:1-2 we read: “Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which God had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord.”2
It is clear from the language of the text that Nadav and Avihu transgressed the established boundaries of worship. Yet, their motivations are less evident. Why would two members of the priestly class ignore God’s clear instructions for ritual worship?
Eighteenth-century Moroccan Talmudist and kabbalist Chaim ben Moses ibn Attar understands Nadav and Avihu to be driven by a desire to pursue God that could not be contained by established boundaries. Writing in his well known commentary the Ohr HaChaim, ibn Attar points to the line in Leviticus 16 that reads: “The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord.”3 He writes: “They approached the supernal light out of their great love of the Holy, and thereby died. Thus they died by ‘Divine kiss’ such as experienced by the perfectly righteous; the difference is only that the righteous die when the Divine kiss approaches them, while [Nadav and Avihu] died by their approaching it.”4 Counter-intuitively, Nadav and Avihu’s deaths were a result of loving God too much.
Their story illustrates that the boundaries for worship established through God’s instructions to Moses are designed, in part, to prevent people from becoming consumed by their passion for the Divine. Significantly, Rashi understands Nadav and Avihu’s destruction to be of the soul and not the body. Commenting on the description of the deceased men being carried from the camp by their tunics,5 Rashi writes: “This tells us that their garments had not been destroyed by fire, but their souls alone—as if two strands of fire had entered their nostrils.”6 Nadav and Avihu’s clothing and bodies remained intact with no signs of burning; they had been struck by fire inwardly.
The description of Nadav and Avihu’s fate closely mirrors the experience of the burned-out activist. Like Nadav and Avihu in their overzealous worship, the pursuit of justice can bring us “too close” to relentless suffering and the disappointment of constant setbacks. And like the Divine fire, these encounters can consume our inner passion. Outwardly, the activist in us continues to exist, but our drive to pursue change is significantly diminished.
In order to prevent hopelessness and maintain a productive passion for social change, we must learn to establish boundaries between our activism and our inner selves. This may feel counterintuitive, since the archetypal activist is one who commits his or her entire being to a cause without limitation. But Parshat Shmini illustrates that even in the pursuit of our highest values, we must operate within a practical framework that enables us to function.
Our challenge, then, is to find out where our individual boundaries lie, and to learn to approach close enough to our cause to influence positive change, but not so close that we become consumed by it. We must grapple deeply with suffering and injustice, but maintain enough distance in our personal lives to give us the strength to carry on. We must recognize our own tolerance for frustration and ensure that we do not overinvest.
When we fail to respect this boundary, we, like Nadav and Avihu, run the risk of letting our pursuit of social justice consume our souls. By limiting the expression of our passion in the short term through a few protective measures, we extend it and deepen it long into the future.
1 Leviticus 9.
2 Leviticus 10:1-2.
3 Leviticus 16:1.
4 Ohr HaChaim on Leviticus 16:1.
5 Leviticus 10:5.
6 Rashi on Leviticus 10:5.
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
CLEAR (SHMINI) 2009
When you enter
be clear as a glassy lake
to every scent and sound
no wine shall cross your lips
no intoxicants, nothing
to loosen your limbs
or slur your speech
God demands presence
not distraction, not the
continuous partial attention
you give everyone else
if you can’t promise that
From Melissa Carpenter
Shemini: Blessing for Glory
And Aaron lifted his hand to the people and blessed them; then he came down from performing the transgression offering and the ascending offering and the well-being offering. Then Moses came, with Aaron, into the Tent of Meeting, and they went out and they blessed the people, and the glory of God appeared to all the people. (Leviticus/Vayikra 9:22-23)
va-yevarcchu = and they blessed, gave power for good fortune, bestowed prosperity or fertility upon
kavod = glory, weightiness, importance, splendor, presence
The Torah portion Shemini (Eighth) opens on the eighth day after Moses has consecrated Aaron and his sons as priests. In front of all the people, Moses tells Aaron what to do next, saying: This thing that God commanded, you will do, and the glory of God will appear to you.
So Aaron performs his first animal sacrifices on the altar, exactly as instructed. Then, while everyone is waiting for the glory of God, Aaron gives the people a blessing. The Torah doesn’t say what the blessing is, but traditional commentary from the Talmud on assumes that this first blessing by the first high priest must be the blessing prescribed for priests in Numbers/Bamidbar 6:22-27 (and still used as a prayer today): May God bless you and guard you; May God illuminate his face for you and be gracious to you; may God lift his face to you and place peace over you.
At this point, one might expect a response from God. Instead, the Torah tells us Moses enters the inner sanctuary, bringing Aaron along. Why? There are several theories, but I favor one in Sifra, a 4th-century collection of commentary. The Sifra says they were concerned that God’s glory had not yet manifested as promised, so they went into the most sacred space to pray. S.R. Hirsch, a 19th-century rabbi, claimed God delayed on purpose so as to prevent any belief that the animal offerings magically make God’s glory appear. When Moses and Aaron step into the inner sanctum, they realize that the “glory” will only manifest when everyone is committed to serving God. So they go back out and give the people a blessing that also serves a prayer for the people’s commitment.
And it works, because fire erupts out of nowhere and consumes the offering on the altar. Then the people sing out with joy and fall on their faces.
Why are they so excited? Haven’t they already seen God’s “glory”? They witnessed a long string of miracles in Egypt, culminating in the splitting of the Reed Sea. They’ve seen the glory of God both as the pillar of cloud and fire that led them from Egypt to Mount Sinai, and as fire on the mountain itself on the day of the revelation.
However, then Moses climbed the mountain and did not return for 40 days, and there was no pillar of cloud and fire to reassure the Israelites. In their desperation at the absence of both God’s prophet and any visible manifestation of God, the people worshiped the golden calf. Moses returned to them, but God’s cloud and fire did not. The Israelites were so anxious to see the glory of God again, they donated vast treasure and labor to make the mishkan, literally a “dwelling-place” for God.
When the mishkan is completed, at the end of the book of Exodus/Shemot, the Torah states: Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of God filled the mishkan. Moses was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud rested upon it.
Didn’t the children of Israel see the glory of God then? Even if they didn’t try to enter the Tent, surely they could see the divine cloud covering it.
Or could they? Maybe, ever since the golden calf, nobody but Moses was able to “see” any manifestation of God. Maybe the people’s spiritual sense had become blinded. God’s presence was right there, all along, but the people could not see it—not until after Moses and Aaron returned from the inner sanctum and gave them another blessing.
What was this second blessing? The Torah doesn’t say, but Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) wrote that it came from Psalm 90, which begins: A prayer for Moses. He picked out verse 17, another common Jewish prayer: May the comfort of the Lord our God be upon us, and the work of our hands make a strong foundation for us.
In this context, the blessing prays that the people will be comforted by experiencing God’s presence, and that the work of making the mishkan will lead to a strong commitment to serving God. Upon hearing this blessing, perhaps the Israelites relaxed and recovered their spiritual senses, so they could once again see the presence of God.
Getting a blessing from another person can seem like a useless exercise. After all, a human being has no power to make the blessing come true. We can only express the hope that God will make it happen.
Yet when I received blessings from Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield, of blessed memory, I felt some transfer of holiness. This feeling made a psychological difference to me, changing my attitude toward life and toward the divine. And when I receive blessings over and over again from the members of the congregation he built, I feel warmed and comforted. God becomes manifest in the glowing expressions on their faces.
It’s hard to be loyal and committed to an abstract principle. The commitment comes more naturally when the abstraction is connected with a human being, someone whose face is shining, someone whose warm feelings are palpable. I can understand why the children of Israel became more committed to God when Moses and Aaron, their human leaders, came out of God’s dwelling place and blessed them. The blessing in itself was a manifestation of God. And their psychological response to the blessing enabled them to see the glory of God.
Bless someone today. Maybe it will make a difference.
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Week’s Energy for Parshas Shemini
More & Less: Balancing Striving & Complacency
The Torah reading of this week begins “And it was on the Eighth day, that Moshe/Moses summoned Aaron and his children…“ (9:1)
For the past seven days Moshe has been constructing and deconstructing the Mishkan/the sanctuary in the desert, and acting as the Cohen Gadol/high priest. On the eighth day, the Mishkan was constructed to remain standing, and Aaron, Moshe’s older brother, takes over the role of high priest.
There are essentially two movements in life; either we are moving outward or we are going inward. We are externalizing or internalizing, desiring what is outside of us, or drawing in. This is the exhale and inhale, and these movements are known as ‘Ratzu’/running (or moving outwards) and ‘Shuv’/returning (or satisfaction.)
Moshe and Aaron collectively represent these two movements. Moshe embodying the quality of Ratzu, that of aspiring, yearning, desiring and always wanting more, never being satisfied with the status quo. Moshe was the one to break free of Egypt, and being the quintessential ‘Ratzu’, when he serves as the high priest, the Mishkan is continually being taken down and then rebuilt. Aaron, representing ’Shuv,’ serves in permanence. When he assumes the role of high priest, the Mishkan is in an established state. Aaron is a man of the people, and is the one most suitable for the position of upholding order and routine, the service of the priesthood.
‘Ratzu,’ which is essentially ’striving desire’, can be divided into a 4 tiered hierarchy. They are, in ascending order;
1.“Physical desire,” a yearning for more stuff, physical objects and the like.
2.“Emotional desire,” a desire for more love and appreciation.
3.“Intellectual desire,” wanting to know more of the world and of one’s self.
4.“Spiritual desire,” a yearning to transcend and sense Transcendence.
This is the hierarchy of human desire, each desire enfolded within the next.
Normally the progression is from the physical to the emotional, the intellectual to the spiritual. Although they may manifest in other ways, the physical/emotional and intellectual desires are all outer expressions of the essential inner, spiritual desire.
Our deepest desire is our spiritual desire. Our soul experiences an emptiness which is essentially a desire for spiritual connection, yet we often mistakenly experience this hunger as a desire for lower forms of connection.
Our soul hungers for spiritual connection and we think we simply desire another pair of shoes. Of course, we know that when we fulfill this lower desire, we still remain feeling devastatingly empty and dissatisfied.
Healthy living is balance. A healthy balance must be established between our deepest desire to transcend and cleave to our soul root, and the opposing awareness of Shuv, a deep understanding of our immediate purpose, the now.
This Week’s Energy:
Balancing Striving & Complacency
Within each one of us there are these two seemingly opposing movements and the energy we receive this week is the unification of these qualities.
We are imbued with the ability to find a balance between our spiritual self that yearns for transcendence and our physical self that needs to be nourished as well.
This week we can achieve a reconciliation of desiring to transcend this universe and simultaneously partaking of its pleasures. We are given the energy to find a healthy balance of ‘Ratzu’ and ‘Shuv.’
All food contains fragments of souls and holy sparks. Adam’s sin and the sins that we have committed in our present and past lives caused many fragments and sparks from our very souls to become scattered throughout the world. Many of these holy sparks become embedded in the food that we eat. Therefore, when we have a desire and a liking to eat a certain food, it is because our soul senses that part of its very essence is embedded in the food that it desires to eat. By eating this food, one actually is filling the void or deficiency in his soul. If one makes a blessing on the food before and after he eats, he sanctifies these sparks that now become part of his soul. Reciting a blessing on one’s food has a great influence on the spiritual and physical performance and health of one’s body and soul.
There is a second reason why someone might desire to eat a particular food. This person is not missing any sparks from his own soul. He eats a particular food in order to elevate the souls that are trapped in a particular food. By making a blessing on food, prior to eating it, he elevates the souls that are contained in that food. These souls now become absorbed and merged into his own soul. These newly acquired souls provides him with additional spiritual power and light to be able to come closer to G-d. This is the meaning of the following verse: “The righteous (Tzaddik) eats to satisfy his soul” (Proverbs 13:25).
The Rabbis designated special benedictions to be recited on fruits and vegetables. The reason for this is that fruits and vegetables contain more precious and holy souls than other types of food. Therefore, fruits and vegetables require a higher type of benediction than what is recited for standard food, which do not contain these higher holy souls.
Reb Sholom Brodt
It Was A Joyous Day
In the Mechilta we learn: “And it was on the eighth day,” on this day there was joy before Hashem in the heavenly spheres, like the joy that was present on the day that the heavens and earth were created. The Sfas Emes explains that this was so because the B’nai Yisrael drew down a new pathway to Hashem through the Tshuvah that they had done. [In a sense] it was not fitting for us to have made the golden calf. The transgression came about [and we were still responsible for it] so that we should prepare the pathway of Tshuvah. Now that the Mishkan was completed and was consecrated there was great joy in heaven before Hashem, for today Hashem glory would be revealed among the people.
Related to the above, I once heard that a student of the Ropshitzer Rebbe asked, “Rebbe, the rabbis teach us that before we do something, it is announced in heaven that ‘so and so is about to do such and such’. Now I can understand such a heavenly announcement before one does a mitzvah, but why would they make such an announcement before one does a transgression?”
The Ropshitzer Rebbe replied, that in heaven they don’t announce that so and so is about to do a transgression, rather they announce that so and so is about to make a new pathway to return to Hashem.
The Tzaddik And The Baal Tshuvah
Interesting! During the first seven days when Moshe Rabbeinu, the complete tzaddik, did all the services and sacrificed the korbanot, the Shechinah did not yet return to dwell among the people. The Midrash tells us that the people approached Moshe Rabbeinu, very much embarrassed, wondering why, after all the work they had done to construct the Mishkan, did the Shechinah not return to dwell amongst them? Was there a flaw in their work? Had they not done it with the proper intentions? Why was Hashem still rejecting them?
Moshe Rabbeinu told them, that the service of his brother Aharon HaKohen, the ‘baal tshuvah’, was greater than his service, and that as soon as he will do his service in the Mishkan the Shechinah will return. But this too requires further explanation! In what way was Aharon’s service greater than Moshe’s? And why was the tzaddik, Moshe Rabbeinu, not able to bring the Shechinah back through the services that he had performed? And one further question: as we shall soon see, Aharon too was not successful on his own in bringing down the Shechinah! It was only after Moshe and Aharon would return to the tent to pray together, that the Shechinah finally returned. We need to understand this.
As we read the parsha carefully and we find that, ‘Bayom ha’shmini’, on the eighth day”, after Moshe Rabbeinu had already instructed Aharon about the sacrifices that he was to offer on his behalf and on behalf of the nation, he tells him again, “krav el hamizbei’ach, approach the altar and offer your korbanot.” It was as if Moshe has to push Aharon into doing the service. Why was this necessary?
The Midrash tells us that Aharon was ashamed to approach the altar for he saw the image of the golden calf [his sin] on the altar. This broke his heart and he was filled with shame before Hashem. How can he, who made the golden calf, bring a sacrifice upon the altar? There right in front of him is his sin; there right before his eyes it is mocking him! How dare I approach the altar? How can the baal tshuvah ever come close to Hashem again?
So Moshe tells him, The commentaries understand these words of Moshe Rabbeinu as saying, “yes your heart is broken and precisely because it is so broken, [more so than everyone else’s] because you feel so much shame and fear before Hashem, you are chosen to be the High Priest. You are the one who is opening the pathway for all Baalei tshuvah to come back to Hashem with love. You are the one to bring the people to Hashem.”
The Sfas Emes [Shmini 5658] interprets Moshe Rabbeinu’s statement “lama attah bosh? l’kach nivcharta!- why are you ashamed? that is why you were chosen!” in a more literal manner. He says that the ultimate purpose of being chosen is to merit a deep sense of embarrassment [humility], as it says when we received the Torah, “So that His fear shall be upon your faces, so that you will not transgress!” The Rabbis equate this fear of Hashem with “boshet”- embarrassment and humility. Such embarrassment and humility comes from being deeply aware that you are in the presence of Hashem. The Rabbis further say that a lack of such shame indicates that this person’s ancestors were not present at Mt. Sinai when the Torah was given! Thus we understand that being brought close at Mt. Sinai is for the merit of acquiring the attribute of “boshet”- embarrassment and humility.
In Pirkei Avot, Hillel says “Be a student of Aharon, who loved the people and brought them close to the Torah.” The Sfas Emes explains this as follows; Aharon haKohen’s love for each person was great, even for those who were always transgressing. As they would come to be close with him, they would on their own begin to feel a sense of shame and this would cause them to do tshuvah and come close to the Torah.
Measure for measure, Hashem did the same for Aharon HaKohen. Because Aharon HaKohen brought the people close to Hashem and His Torah, therefore Hashem brought him even closer to Himself and chose him to be the Kohen Gadol- the High Priest. Now this caused Aharon to feel great embarrassment – this, explains the Sfas Emes, is the ultimate ‘shleimus’- completeness in the service of Hashem.
It is with such a sense of shame and humility that one can approach every mitzvah. The Sfas Emes defines “boshet” as the humility that comes over you when you honestly think about, “How could a clump of dust possibly do the will of the Creator blessed be His Name?” It is with such humility that you can actually do His will!
And so too after you have done the mitzvah- if it was done b’shleimus- in a manner that is complete, whole and true, then an even deeper sense of humility comes over you!!!
And so, says the Sfas Emes both interpretations are true. Because Aharon felt shame therefore he was chosen, and having been chosen as Kohen Gadol, the attribute of “boshet” was affixed within him even more deeply.
Moshe and Aharon
Then Aharon HaKohen, the master of the broken heart approached the altar and offered the sacrifices. Then he stepped down from the altar and concluded his service by blessing the B’nai Yisrael with the threefold priestly blessings:
“May Hashem bless you and protect you.
May Hashem shine His countenance unto you and grant you charm.
May Hashem lift His face unto you and give you Shalom”
But still the Shechinah did not return! Aharon haKohen, the High Priest, was totally filled with shame. He is certain that it is because of his shortcomings, because of his sins, that Hashem is still angry with him; that is why the Shechinah has not returned! He turns to his brother Moshe imploringly, ‘why did you put me to shame by insisting that I do the services?
Then, “Moshe and Aharon went into the Tent of Meeting [to pray to Hashem] and [then] they came out and blessed the people, and the glory of Hashem appeared to the entire people. (9:23)
Rashi teaches that they blessed the people with the blessing: “May the pleasantness of Hashem our G-d be upon us; establish for us the work of our hands, establish the work of our hands.” (Psalm 90.) And then the Shechinah finally returned to the people: “A fire came forth from before Hashem and consumed what was on the altar; the burnt-offering and the fats. All the people saw and they raised their voices in uttered praise and they fell on their faces.” (Vayikra 9:24)
In Psalm 99 we read: “Moshe and Aharon, among His priests, and Samuel among those who invoke His Name, would call upon the Lord and He would answer them. He would speak to them from a pillar of cloud.”
Moshe Rabbeinu, the ‘tzaddik’ who did not have any part in the sin of the golden calf, was not able to bring down the Shechinah by himself. Neither was Aharon HaKohen the broken hearted ‘baal tshuvah’, able to do it by himself. It was only when they finally went in to pray together that the Shechinah finally returned. Like Yehudah and Yosef, the baal tshuvah needs the tzaddik and the tzaddik needs the baal tshuvah. Indeed the service of the baal tshuvah m’ahavah – the one, who returns to Hashem out of love for Him, reaches higher than the service of the tzaddik!
Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum
THE EIGHTH DAY
The “eighth day” with which our parshah of SHEMINI opens was the first day of the month of Nissan, one year since the Exodus from Egypt. This was the day marked out for the final inauguration of the Sanctuary following seven days of consecration of Aaron and his sons for service as priests. Those seven days had started on the 23rd of the preceding month of Adar. On each of those seven days, Moses had erected the Sanctuary in order to conduct the priestly consecration rituals, in which he himself served as the “high priest”, only to dismantle the Sanctuary afterwards. However, on the Eighth Day — the first of Nissan and first day of the New Year — the Sanctuary was left standing, so to remain for as long as the Israelites stayed in the same desert encampment. On that day Aaron and his sons fully assumed the role of priests forever after.
The rabbis stated that the first day of Nissan “took ten crowns”: It was (1) the first day of creation; (2) first day of the first of the months of the year; (3) the first day of the priesthood; (4) the first day of the Sanctuary service; (5) first day of the inauguration sacrifices of the princes of the twelve tribes; (6) first day for the descent of fire from heaven on the altar; (7) the first day that sacrifices were eaten; (8) the first day that all other altars (such as private altars) other than the Sanctuary altar became forbidden; (9) the first day that the Divine Presence dwelled in Israel; (10) the first day on which the priests blessed the people (Mechilta, Shemini 1).
In calling this the “eighth” day, the Torah alludes to the fact that, with the inauguration of the Sanctuary, it was the day on which the Israelites completely transcended the natural order, which was brought into being through the “seven days of creation”. The latter correspond to the lower seven of the ten sefirot of which the Kabbalah speaks, corresponding to the “body” (as opposed to top three, which are the “head”).
As long as man does not recognize his true mission in this world and spends his life trying to satisfy only his bodily needs and desires, he is locked within nature, like an animal. However, when he embraces his destiny, willfully configuring and using the material world as a means of drawing closer to G-d, building a Sanctuary and bringing the natural, the animal, as a KORBAN, a “sacrifice” (lit. “a drawing close”), man attains a level that transcends nature. This is the eighth level, that of BINAH (the eighth Sefirah counting up from Malchut, which is the bottom Sefirah). BINAH is the “gateway” to the “head”, the brain and the soul (consisting of the top three Sefirot).
When we use our soul-powers — our willpower, wisdom and understanding, to assert our control over the material and the animal, we can “pass through the gate” into the world of the spirit. This is governed by a law different from that which governs the natural order. The world of the spirit is governed by Torah law. When we pass through the gate, we can know and understand (with BINAH) that the natural order is nothing but an arena of challenge created by G-d in order for us to use it to connect back to the Source. As long as we are under the power of nature, this world stands as a barrier holding us back from G-d. But when we assert our spiritual power, this world turns into a gateway through which we can draw closer to Him.
And it came to pass on the eighth day (Leviticus 9:1)
That day took ten crowns: It was the first day of the Creation (i.e., a Sunday), the first for the offerings of the nessi’im (tribal heads), the first for the priesthood, the first for [public] sacrifice, the first for the fall of fire from Heaven, the first for the eating of sacred food, the first for the dwelling of the Divine Presence in Israel, the first for the priestly blessing of Israel, the first day on which it was forbidden to sacrifice to G-d anywhere save in the Sanctuary, and the first of months.
(Talmud, Shabbat 87b)
Speech signifies comprehensibility. Melody is beyond language, expressing moods which words cannot describe. Silence is yet higher.
The power to be silent at certain moments of life and of history is an important strength. It expresses the awareness that G-d is infinite, and cannot be encapsulated in our human conceptions of what should take place.
The Talmud tells of an instance in which Moses himself was told by G-d to be silent. G-d showed him in a vision all future generations of the Jewish people, and the leaders of each generation. Moses was greatly impressed by the wisdom of Rabbi Akiva. Then he saw the way the Romans tortured him to death. “Is this the reward of his Torah knowledge?” Moses asked. G-d answered: “Be silent. Thus it arose in My thought”.
This is not to say that the Torah advocates a fatalistic approach to life. Before the event, one must do everything possible to prevent tragedy. But once it has happened, G-d forbid, through the acceptance and the silence we reach a special closeness to the Divine. Our Sages tell us that because Aaron was silent, he was rewarded by G-d speaking directly to him.
In our generation, too, there is a need for this power of silence. It is not a passive power, but one that leads to vigorous and joyous action. The Jewish response to the harrowing events of the Shoah is the determined and energetic action to rebuild Jewish family life and Jewish knowledge.
Through our power of silence we too, like Aaron, will merit Divine revelation. G-d will bring the Messiah, rebuilding the Temple and bringing lasting peace to the world.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
The worth of a utensil of wood or metal is not only in its function as a container–the material of which it is made also has value. So contact with any part of it, including its outside surface, affects its ritual state. On the other hand, an earthen utensil, whose body is mere earth, has value only as a container; accordingly it is affected only by what happens to its inside. Indeed, its inside is therefore even more susceptible to contamination than that of other utensils.
Man is an earthen vessel (“And G-d formed man out of the dust of the earth, and He blew into his nostril a living soul”–Genesis 2:7). His worth lies not in his material exterior, but in its content. He should therefore regard as significant only what pertains to his inner self.
(The Rebbe of Kotzk)
When a person endeavors to venture forth on his own, relying on his own intellect and feelings to guide him in the proper path, he had best be well equipped for the task. For he is then a mikveh, a pool of water no longer in direct contact with its source, which must possess a minimum of so many “gallons” of understanding and fortitude. Furthermore, he must be “stationary,” contained and delimited by walls outside of himself; for without such objective control he is susceptible to all sorts of distortions and corruptions. A mikveh that lacks these criteria not only fails to purify other things, but is also itself vulnerable to contamination.
On the other hand, one who is a “wellspring,” disavowing all pretensions of a “separate identity” from his Source, has no such limitations. His intellect may not be the deepest, his talents quite unspectacular, but the little he has can effectively take on the most challenging of tasks. Nor does he require any confining walls or “closed communities” to safeguard his integrity: wherever he goes and flows, he has a positive effect on his environment and is never negatively influenced by its imperfections. For no matter how scant his resources, and no matter where he ventures forth, he maintains an unbroken attachment to his Source.
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Brokenness and purity: more thoughts on Shemini 2008
If you read Vessel, the poem I wrote arising out of this week’s Torah portion, you know that Lev. 11:33 caught my attention this week. That’s the verse about how if any animal which is tamei (like a mouse or lizard or other creepy-crawly) falls into an earthen vessel, the vessel and its contents become tamei, and the vessel must be broken.
That verse takes me, through a kind of mental hyperlink, to Mishnah Kelim 2:1:
Vessels of wood, vessels of leather, vessels of bone or vessels of glass that are flat are clean. And those that form a receptacle are unclean. If they were broken they become clean again. If one remade them into vessels they are susceptible to uncleanness henceforth. Earthen vessels and vessels of alum-crystals are on a par in respect of uncleanness: they contract and convey uncleanness through their air-spaces, they contract uncleanness through their concave bottoms but not through their backs, and when broken they become clean.
The obsession with tahor and tamei, “pure” and “impure” (or, as my teacher Reb Judith Abrams prefers, “susceptible to ritual impurity” and “not susceptible to ritual impurity”), can be distancing for modern liberal Jews. My advice is, don’t fixate on the details of how various kinds of vessels become tahor or tamei. It’s the last line of that quote that interests me: “when broken they become clean.”
Maimonides, a.k.a. the Rambam, expands that line a little bit:
It is said that breaking is purification (or: to be broken is to be purified.) So that earthen vessels that have become tamei cannot become tahor through immersion in a mikvah … they are tamei until they’re broken. This is speaking in the language of Torah; everything that is in the vessel becomes impure, and you shall break it.
Talk of brokenness connects me — another mental hyperlink! — to a teaching about the broken tablets. Remember that Moshe brought a first set of tablets down from Sinai, but when he encountered the people dancing around the egel zahav, the Golden Calf, he shattered them. In the Talmud (Bava Basra 14a) we read that “The whole tablets and the broken tablets were both kept inside the Ark of the Covenant.”
Why did the children of Israel save the shards of the broken tablets? Why not destroy them, or leave them behind in the desert? Surely no one there wanted to keep them as mementos of one of the community’s strongest lapses of faith? But the tradition teaches us that the broken tablets were preserved as a sign that holiness persists even in our brokenness. Sometimes our brokenness, our mistakes, are what we have to offer to God…and that’s worthy of preservation along with the aspects of us which are whole.
A further leap from that teaching is the teaching that we must treat our elders with love and respect, even those who have lost their awareness and can no longer teach their wisdom, because the broken tablets were cherished along with the whole. And, of course, there’s the beautiful Hasidic teaching — attributed to Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk — that “there is nothing more whole than a broken heart.”
All of this in turn reminds of the parable of the Chinese woman with the two pots of water — how the broken pot was the one which actually yielded the path full of wildflowers. Blessings can arise through our brokenness — and maybe when we acknowledge that we’re always already a little bit broken, that’s how we become spiritually tahor, attuned to the deep purity that’s always within.
Credit where it’s due: many of the teachings in this post were drawn from the course I took on middot last summer. For the parable of the woman with the two pots of water, I owe gratitude to Broken, a post at Shirat Devorah
And if any of those falls into an earthen vessel, everything inside it shall be unclean and [the vessel] itself you shall break. –Leviticus 11:33
The heart is an earthen vessel,
the body an urn: made from dust
and patched with slip,
divine fingerprints everywhere.
Clay is permeable. What you see,
what you touch changes you.
The small grey kitchen mouse
with its neck snapped, dry and grisly
or the body losing integrity, blood
welling someplace it shouldn’t
or the friend who lets you down,
the fierce hope that withers away:
each of these charges the heart
with uncanny energy, untouchable.
All you can do is break the clay
wide open, crack the very housing.
What hurts is what draws you
ever nearer to what we can’t reach.
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
LEVITICUS 9:1 – 11:47
Just before the priests are to be installed, Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu
offer “strange fire” before God and die in the process.
THE STORY OF THE STRANGE FATE of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu can be read as a warning… or as a promise.
On the face of it, it looks like they did something very wrong and were punished for it, thereby leaving us with a stern warning: You must play by the rules… or else! The text states that they, “offered strange fire which God had not commanded them. And fire came forth from God and consumed them and they died before God.”1
But perhaps Nadav and Avihu did not do anything wrong, but instead did something extraordinarily right. Perhaps death was not a punishment, but instead a passionate Divine embrace of beloveds.
Moses conveys God’s explanation of the event to Aaron with these words: “Through them that are near Me, I will be sanctified; and upon the face of all people I will be glorified.”2
These are not the words of an angry God. Those who were close to Nadav and Avihu are forbidden to mourn them. Is this because God is celebrating their return?
WHEN I RECEIVE this story as a blessing, Nadav and Avihu’s death becomes a demonstration of the power of transformation. I look for the place within me that is willing to offer up everything, directly from the impulse of the heart, without being asked, without conforming to what is deemed normal. The fire that I give seems strange because it is unmediated by religious convention. I give the strange raw essence of my passion, my fire, and then I am transformed through my giving. God takes me, rather than my gift. And isn’t this just what I had intended? I ask to be taken, used, transformed by the force that is constantly re-creating the world. I surrender self, form, knowledge, even religion that I might be returned to my Divine essence.
Shemini blesses me with this possibility, this promise: There comes a moment when all rules, procedures, methods, even my spiritual attainments are stripped away from me, and all I have left to give is my self. In that moment my giving is entirely unselfconscious. It is a gesture of pure soul yearning to return to its essence. In that moment of selflessness, the glory of God appears upon the faces of all people. In fact it is everywhere.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
AFTER RECOUNTING the story of Nadav and Avihu, which is about ecstasy, wild abandon, supreme intoxication, Shemini goes on to describe the path of discernment, responsibility and sobriety. Our spiritual challenge is to embrace the wisdom of both of these paths.
THE PATH OF SOBRIETY requires that I do everything possible to keep myself clear so that I may be of service. I must clear myself of prejudice, distortion, pride, despair… anything that might cloud an accurate vision of the truth of this moment or weaken my power to respond.
I must be careful about what I consume and what words I say. I must monitor my state of consciousness because it is the lens through which I perceive the world.
The path of sobriety requires an impeccability that is inspired by knowing that this day might be my last.
THE PATH OF ECSTASY requires that I be willing to surrender everything so that I might be held in the Divine embrace. On this path my sense of separateness dissolves. There is a happy confusion of subject and object.
It is necessary to learn to walk both these paths in the realization of holiness. Our sobriety gives us the strength and wisdom to hold and channel the ecstasy. Our ecstasy challenges rigidity and brings vitality to the heart of our sobriety.
In Shemini the reason that is given for our quest for holiness is that we must become like God, our Source. Becoming holy is, then realizing who we truly are. Towards the end of Shemini we are given this spiritual challenge:
I am YHVH (the Ground of Being) your God;
Sanctify yourselves and be holy
For I am holy.
For Guidelines for Practice please click link to website.
From Rav Kook
Shmini: Immersion in Water
“If any of these dead (animals) falls on a vessel, it will become unclean… That article must be immersed in a mikveh …” (Lev. 11:32)
The topic of ritual impurity is a difficult one. This impurity is not a tangible entity; it cannot be seen or felt. It is a spiritual contamination, the result of association with death. The Torah teaches that purification is attained through immersion in a natural spring or a ritual bath (mikveh) filled with rainwater.
Why Immersion in Water?
The story is told of a wealthy American Jew who decided to visit one of the leading Torah scholars of his generation. Upon arriving at the rabbi’s home, the visitor was shocked to discover that the renowned scholar lived in a simple house, with a dirt floor and shabby wood furnishings. Anxious to help the rabbi improve his living conditions, the guest suggested that it would be more becoming for such an eminent scholar to have more respectable furnishings, and he would be more than happy to pay for all expenses.
The Torah scholar turned to his guest. ‘And tell me, where is your furniture?’
‘My furniture?’ responded the American Jew, baffled. ‘Why, I am only a visitor here. I don’t travel with all my belongings.’
‘So with me,’ the rabbi replied. ‘I am only a visitor here in this world …’
A Lesson in Estrangement
The act of immersing in water, Rav Kook taught, contains a profound psychological lesson. All immoral deeds, all flawed character traits, and all erroneous opinions — they all stem from the same fundamental mistake: not recognizing that our life in this world is transitory. Here, we are only visitors. Whatever we find here should be utilized for its eternal value.
When we immerse ourselves in water, we are forced to recognize our existential estrangement from the physical universe. How long can we survive under water? The experience of submerging drives home the realization that our existence in this world is transient, and we should strive towards more lasting goals.
Tents and Natural Springs
The Sages (Berachot 16a) hinted to this insight when they compared the effect of Torah study to that of a purifying spring:
“Why did Balaam (Num. 24:6) compare the tents of Israel to streams? This teaches us that just as a spring raises one from impurity to purity, so too, the tents (of Torah learning) raise one from the state of guilt to one of merit.”
In what way is learning Torah like submerging in a natural spring?
Torah study and immersion in water have a similar beneficial effect. Instead of focusing only on the material matters of this world, learning the wisdom of Torah raises our aspirations to eternal values. For this reason, the Sages used the expression, “tents of Torah.” Why tents? A tent is the most transient of homes. This phrase emphasizes the quality of Torah that, like a purifying mikveh or a natural spring, makes us aware of the transitory nature of the physical world.
(adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, p. 74)
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
Shemini: The Error of Nadav and Avihu
In the midst of the tremendous joy as the Tabernacle was dedicated, tragedy struck the family of the Kohen Gadol:
“Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire pan, placed fire on it and then incense. They offered before God a strange fire that God had not instructed them. Fire came forth from before God and consumed them; and they died before God.” (Lev. 10:1-2)
Why did Nadav and Avihu die? What was their sin?
Chochmah and Binah
The Kabbalists explained that Nadav and Avihu erred by separating the spiritual realm of Binah (Insight) from the higher realm of Chochmah (Wisdom). To understand this statement, we must first clarify the concepts of Chochmah and Binah.
Chochmah is the very essence of the Holy. It is pure awareness, like a flash of intuitive understanding. This general perception contains the splendor of sublime ideals at their highest level, before the detailed characteristics of reality. Compared to the infinite expanse of Chochmah, all else is limited and inconsequential.
Below Chochmah lies the spiritual realm of Binah. It is the elaboration and extension of Chochmah. This realm is created when the light of Chochmah is ready to form the ideals that govern finite content, permitting the formation of worlds and souls. Binah reflects reality in its most idealized form. It corresponds to the sublime purpose of creation and the culmination of life.
Exquisite beauty and delight are revealed in the realm of Binah. Enlightenment through the faculty of prophecy emanates from this realm. The absolute holiness of Chochmah, on the other hand, transcends all forms of spiritual pleasure.
Israel draws its inner spirit from the transcendent realm of Chochmah. As the Zohar states, “Oraita meChochmah nafkat” — the Torah emanates from Chochmah. The apex of Israel’s faith is beyond all spiritual pleasures, beyond all ideals. Ideals belong to the realm of Binah. Ultimately they restrict our aspirations and cannot provide an absolute and eternal level of morality.
Separating Binah from Chochmah
Nadav and Avihu drew their inspiration from the wellsprings of Binah. They sought the sublime experiences that characterize this realm, a spiritual grandeur that is accessible in our world. Due to their heightened awareness of their own greatness, however, they mistakenly saw in the holy realm of Binah the ultimate source of reality. They placed all of their aspirations in this spiritual world.
By doing so, they abandoned the supernal light that transcends all spiritual freedom and joy. The true basis of life and reality is rooted in the ultimate realm of Chochmah and Torah. Unpunished, their mistake would have brought about the collapse of the world’s moral foundations. History is testimony to many great ideals that, because they were not anchored to the elevated source of Chochmah, deteriorated to the darkest depths of ignorance and cruelty.
Nadav and Avihu erred by pursuing the spiritual pleasures of prophecy and wisdom in a form detached from Torah and its practical teachings. This is what the Kabbalists meant by the statement that Nadav and Avihu divided Binah from Chochmah. They tried to attain closeness to the Holy on their own initiative, offering a fire “that God had not instructed them.” The various explanations for their behavior found in the Talmud — that they were drunk with wine, that their heads were bare (a sign that they lacked proper awe of heaven), that they taught the Law in front of their teacher — all reflect the same basic flaw. Nadav and Avihu concentrated their efforts on their own spiritual attainments, without integrating the discipline of Torah. They were highly aware of their own greatness, but personal holiness must be negated before the higher light of Torah.
Repairing the Mistake of Nadav and Avihu
Nadav and Avihu, as the Torah stresses, had no children. Their service of God was not a service that could be transmitted to future generations. And yet their independent spirit and enthusiastic idealism has an important place in the future Messianic Era:
“Remember the Torah of Moses My servant, which I enjoined him on Horev, laws and statutes for all of Israel. Behold, I am sending you the prophet Elijah before God’s great and terrible day. He will restore the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers.” (Malachi 3:22-24)
Malachi envisioned a future reconciliation of the fathers and the children. His prophecy also mentions Elijah the prophet and the Torah of Moses. What is the connection between these different themes?
The pre-Messianic Era is an age characterized by a tragic rift between the younger generation, idealistic and independent in spirit, and the older generation, faithful to the old traditions and the Torah of Moses. This divide parallels the sin of Nadav and Avihu, who separated Binah from Chochmah, dividing the ideals from their eternal source.
But the unique personality of Elijah, combining the prophetic ideals of justice with a zeal for the brit and the Torah, will repair and redeem this mistake. It is this synthesis that will succeed in reconciling the generations. And together, the passionate spirit of youth (Binah), together with the orderly and practical wisdom of the elders (Chochmah), will hasten the final redemption.
(Adapted from Orot HaKodesh, vol. II, pp. 283-286; vol. III, pp. 360-361)
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