INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA
which is the eighth day of Pesach outside of Israel, is shabbat parashat Shemini
in Israel. For the next 2 months, we will be reading each parasha here in Israel
one week earlier than in chutz-le'aretz. We will be sending the parasha shiur
out for the week as read in Eretz Yisrael, which means those outside of Israel
will be getting it 10 days before it is read.
DEATH IN THE SANCTUARY
By Rabbi Alex Israel
Our Parasha opens on the festive "Yom Hashemini" - the eighth and final
day of the ceremonial dedication of the Tabernacle (known in Hebrew as the
Mishkan). The Jews had spent half a year planning, crafting and building all the
specially designed symbolic objects for this Tabernacle. There was the holy ark
of the covenant made with gold, which would hold the two tablets of stone. There
was the decorative coverings and curtains woven with colorful wools and gold
thread in a most intricate design. There was the menora - the candelabra - which
would be lit daily, the altar, the incense, the clothes of the priests. It was
all in place. Now the Children of Israel would have a focus for their religious
service, a portable sanctuary which they would carry with them every step to the
land of Israel.
For seven days now, (Leviticus, chapter 8) the priests had been engaged
in a special inauguration service - the "Miluim". The special ritual Temple
objects as well as the priests were consecrated through a daily formula of
sacrifices and "anointing oil". Now, was the climax:
eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons and the elders of Israel....TODAY THE
LORD WILL APPEAR TO YOU." (9:1-4)
Both Aaron and the people were to offer sacrifices which would prepare
them spiritually for the revelation of God. They brought a sin-offering focusing
their minds on repentance and self- betterment. They brought a burnt-offering
expressing their total dedication to God, and then a shelamim - peace-offering -
which is representative of human covenant with, and closeness to God.
lifted his hands towards the people and blessed them; and he stepped down after
the sin-offering, the burnt-offering and the peace-offering.... and the presence
of the Lord appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from before the Lord and
consumed the burnt-offering .... And all the people saw, and shouted with joy,
and fell on their faces." (9:22-24)
God responds to the offerings of man by sending fire from heaven to burn
the offering. This revelation is understood by the people. They react with
frenzied excitement and unbridled praise, exhilaration. They shout for joy and
bow to the ground.
Why is this event so significant? Perhaps it may simply be understood as
the successful realization of a major national project. The explicit aim of the
Mishkan was to establish a connection with the Divine Presence through a
spiritual center at the focal point of the Israelite camp. God had promised that
this structure would facilitate an ongoing contact between His presence and the
people -"Make for me a Tabernacle and I will rest my presence in their midst"
(Exodus 25:8). Now, the Mishkan has realized its goals. A connection has been
established. God has made revealed His presence in the house dedicated to His
But an additional dimension must have been present in the minds of the
people of Israel. Ever since the sin of the Golden Calf, God had distanced
himself from the nation. He had done this in a most visual way. Whenever Moses
wished to communicate with God, he would have to go outside the camp to a
special "tent of meeting" (ibid. 33:6-10). It was as if God had divorced
himself, most literally, from the people. Now, with the presence of God revealed
to the entire nation in the newly established Tabernacle, which was in the
CENTER OF THE CAMP, God was sending a clear message to the people. He was
telling them that they had been forgiven for the betrayal of the Golden Calf.
The breach was repaired, direct contact was now restored. (Rashi, Leviticus
NADAV AND AVIHU
Against this backdrop of celebration and religious euphoria, we are
abruptly brought down to earth with something of a shock. Without so much as a
break in the narrative, the Torah relates the following tragic episode:
Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu each took his firepan, put fire on it, and laid
incense upon it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, of which they had
not been commanded. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus
they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, "This is what the Lord
meant when he said: Through those close to Me I show Myself holy, and I gain
glory before all the people." And Aaron was silent. (10:1-3)
The contrast in mood and atmosphere could not be sharper; however, there
is no doubt that a linkage exists between the stories. The word "ESH" - fire -
appears at the critical point of each section of the narrative.
First, God's FIRE consumes the sacrifices on the altar. Then Nadav and
Avihu offer incense with a firepan, an act which is considered as "alien FIRE".
The result is that FIRE emerges from God and consumes them. It is almost as if
Nadav and Avihu themselves become the very offerings which only moments before
had been burnt by the fire of God on the altar.
All the commentaries on this enigmatic episode attempt to delve into the
precise nature of the sin of Nadav and Avihu. What exactly did they do wrong?
What was their motivation? Why did they do it?
A QUESTION OF MOTIVATION
The sin of Nadav and Avihu would seem to be simple. The Torah tells us
that, "they offered before the Lord alien fire, of which they had not been
commanded." This is reiterated elsewhere in the Torah (Numbers 3:4, 26:61) and
there would, therefore, seem little room for discussion on this point. As we
have noted, the repeated use of the word "fire" leads us to believe that their
being consumed by fire was a punishment for the alien fire that they brought.
But the gravity of the punishment begs us to search for further clues. Would two
young priests be punished with death simply for making a procedural error? Many
of the answers - and you can find a spectrum of suggestions as to what was the
crime of Nadav and Avihu. - define the sin on the basis of the motivation
One of the most famous approaches to the issue is that of RASHI. He
entered intoxicated. Notice that immediately after their death, God warned the
surviving priests not to enter the Temple after drinking."
Rashi (basing himself on the Midrash) does not invent this explanation.
He has a strong TEXTUAL proof. He notes a clear undertone in a verse which opens
the very next paragraph. There God commands:
drink wine or intoxicating drink when you enter the sanctuary AND YOU WILL NOT
Why the qualifying statement here? Why tell us how to avoid death in
God's sanctuary so soon after the
horrible death of Nadav and Avihu if the issues are entirely without connection?
Apparently, Nadav and Avihu had been celebrating; they drank a little too much.
In their unrestrained state, they entered the sanctuary; after all, this was a
day of celebration for the Tabernacle. It was there that they met their death.
Was it so bad? - they were
only drunk! But the lesson must be that in the presence of God, in the Temple,
we cannot lose control of our bodies and minds. The Temple is a place where we
focus our mind - senses heightened, brain and emotion engaged in the encounter
with the almighty. Drunkenness and the loss of control are an anathema to the
Temple. Drunkenness in the Temple is the height of irreverence and the ultimate
act of turning ones face from God's presence. As for Nadav and Avihu, they
should know better. They are priests, the servants of God in all that relates to
the Tabernacle. They must always be ‘on call'. We might say that any lapse in
that alert awareness is a fundamental flaw in the servant of God.
Even today, in a reflection of this law, we are restricted from praying
if we are in a state of drunkenness. This law applies to Kohanim (Priests) in an
interesting way. They are restricted from engaging in the priestly blessing in
the Synagogue if they have consumed alcohol as long as they are still affected
by it. (Shulchan Arukh Orach Chayim 99:1, 128:38)
There is a problem however with Rashi's explanation. It relates more to
what is said between the lines to that which is stated explicitly. The Sifra (a
2nd century Midrash) offers two alternative approaches:
another view: When they saw that Aaron had offered the sacrifices and performed the
prescribed service and God had not descended in revelation to Israel, Nadav said
to Avihu, ‘Does anyone cook without fire?' They went to get fire immediately -
alien fire - and brought it into the Holy of Holies as it states (10:1) "Now
Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu each took HIS firepan, put fire on it ...'
Let us examine this view. It sees Nadav and Avihu waiting for the fire
to descend from heaven. They think that maybe God cannot burn the offering
without their assistance. According to this view, their sin is a serious lack of
faith in God. They are unsure whether God has the ability to create fire for
himself. Note the textual support. The "alien fire" is identified as their own
personal fire. It was alien because it was undesirable. God responded by
demonstrating that he had the power to create fire, and fire of such intensity
that it would end their lives. (It is interesting that this midrash inserts the
episode of Nadav and Avihu into the time lapse between the sacrifices being
offered and fire descending from God. Examine the text of the verses - 9:22-24 -
and you will see the gap into which the Midrash inserts this story.)
But perhaps the most powerful of all is this third alternative
explanation, found once again in the Sifra:
sons of Aaron took: They too were bound up in the joy of the occasion. When they
saw the "new" fire (from God) they acted to add love to love."
What is the meaning of this esoteric explanation? Apparently, according
to this reading, Aaron's sons were moved by only the noblest of motives - thus
their honorable title, "sons of Aaron." They saw God's love for his people by
means of the fire he sent to bless the endeavors of man, and they wished to
reflect that act back to God. They wanted to imitate God, to dedicate their own
religious act to God in a reflection of God's actions towards man.
Rabbi Hirsch explains that their motivations were ideal, but the methods
inappropriate. The verses stress their independent act, without consulting the
religious authorities - Moses and Aaron. They were well intended, in fact God
Himself calls them (v.3) "krovei" - "those who are close to Me." So why did they
die? Because this was "alien fire". Why was it alien? Because the Torah stresses
"they had not been commanded" to bring it. Only that which God has prescribed is
legitimate in the Temple. Individual religious expression, even the most
heartfelt feelings of the soul, have to be channeled and expressed in a
particular way. Nadav and Avihu broke this sacred code.
offerings are formulae of the demands of God.... A self-devised offering would
be the murder of the very truths which our offerings are meant to express and
would be placing a pedestal on which to glorify one's own ideas.... Not by fresh
inventions even of God-serving novices, but by carrying out that which is
ordained by God has the Jewish priest to establish the authenticity of his
activities." (Hirsch on 10:1)
Are we all treated so harshly? Apparently not. The Torah records God's
guiding rule of establishing an unusually high standard: "Through those close to
Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people."
It is the closeness to God - whether physically, in the Temple, or
religiously, in the case of the righteous - that causes God to apply a more
stringent treatment. The Talmud has a different way of putting this. It states
"God takes issue with the righteous, up to a hairbreadth."
We now turn to another fatal story whose similarity to the Nadav and
Avihu episode pinpointed it as the chosen haftara of the week. We will compare
our two stories; their similarities and differences; and see whether we can
discern a common message.
assembled all the choicest men of Israel, thirty thousand strong... to bring up
the Ark of God to which God's Name was attached....
loaded the Ark of God onto a new cart and conveyed it from the house of
Avinadav... David and all the House of Israel danced before the Lord to the
sound of all types of instruments: lyres harps, timbrels, sistrums and cymbals.
reached the threshing floor of Nachon, Uzza reached out for the Ark of God and
grasped it for the oxen had stumbled. And God was furious with Uzza. And God
struck him down on the spot and he died there with the Ark of God. David was
angry that the Lord had inflicted a breach upon Uzza, and he named the place
'Breach of Uzza'..." (II Samuel 6:1-8)
The background to the story. King David has recently established
Jerusalem as his capital city. He wishes to raise the prestige of God and the
prominence of religion by
establishing the Temple in his royal city. His first stage is to bring the Ark
of the Covenant - which has been in exile for over fifty years - into Jerusalem.
This journey is to be the ceremonial installation of the Ark in the city, until
tragedy strikes - a horrible death halts the singing and dancing, and the
festive procession grinds to an abrupt and tragic halt.
The very choice of this passage from the Prophets to accompany our
Parasha tells us that we should identify a connection between the two stories.
Certain parallels are clear.
First is the festivities which provide the backdrop to the stories. Both
episodes are introduced with elaborate mass celebrations. The reason for the
pomp and ceremony in both cases is the Temple itself and the close proximity of
God's presence. The feelings are the same - the mixture of excitement and
religious ecstasy at God's increased closeness and involvement in the life of
the nation, blended with a sense of awe which this occasion generates.
Furthermore, in both stories, there is the revelation of God's presence. In our
Parasha, we have the fire from heaven, and in the haftara, the Ark is
traditionally considered as the "chariot" of God, a sort of vehicle for God's
presence (See Ex. 25: and Numbers 10:25-26).
While the sounds of song and praise are still ringing in our ears, the
narratives record a swift stroke from God causing sudden death. In both stories,
the reasons given for the death of this person are difficult to accept.
In both cases, it would appear that the victims are high ranking
priests, righteous people. Nadav and Avihu are the elder sons of Aaron. Moses
says about them "Through those close to Me I show Myself holy". They were close
to God and that is why they were treated with such strictness. Uzza too is the
son of Avinadav who had been taking care of the Ark during its exile and was
positioned in immediate proximity to the Ark in the procession. The Talmud
comments on the phrase "‘And he died there WITH the Ark of God' - Just as the
Ark exists for all time, so Uzza entered the world to come."(Sota 35a). Neither
victim is characterized a sinner.
RESPONSES TO SUFFERING
In a certain way, we can see these stories as raising the classic
questions of theodicy. They open the theological mystery of why the righteous
suffer. Neither Uzza nor Nadav and Avihu were evil. They might have slipped up.
They acted recklessly, inappropriately, even sinfully. But did their punishment
match the crime?
These stories are similar but in one respect they differ enormously. The
contrast in the human responses to the tragedy of the deaths of these young
promising people are fascinating. Here in Leviticus we read of Aaron's response.
Aaron was silent."
Aaron is unresponsive and accepts the divine decree. He exhibits no
outrage towards God. He cried at home for his children who were lost forever,
but he did not question the Almighty. David is different. He does not stay
quiet. He feels that Uzza has been treated badly. After all, he simply wanted to
protect the Ark; he wanted to prevent it from falling to the ground. David
expresses his questions, his sense of amazement at the divine justice, and he
goes further, by eternalizing the questions. He names the place "Strike against
This week is Holocaust Remembrance day. Around the Jewish world people
cast their minds back to those most horrendous inexplicable years when man
murdered man in a mechanical manner, heartless, inhumane and evil.
How do we respond religiously to suffering which appears
incomprehensible? Good honest people, just like us, little children with their
unbridled inquisitiveness and innocent minds, men and women of all walks of
life, went to their death. Six million people. Can we explain God?
Can we explain the fire which consumed them? We are not commenting on a Biblical
passage. We cannot offer explanations. Maybe we can humbly sit in silence - like
Aaron - before God, accepting the absurdity of his decree. "Baruch Dayan
Ha-emet" is the blessing we say over tragedy - blessed be the True Judge. We
know God is true, but where is the Justice? - But maybe, we too can offer our
honest questions to God. Just like King David, we too can voice even outrage,
our pain. We can tell God that we do not understand.