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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT SHEMINI - SHABBAT PARAH
March 29, 2008 – 22 Adar II 5768

Annual: Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47 (Etz Hayim, p. 630; Hertz p. 443)
Triennial: Leviticus 9:1 – 10:11 (Etz Hayim, p. 630; Hertz p. 443)
Maftir: Numbers 19:1 – 22 (Etz Hayim, p. 880; Hertz p. 652)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 36:16 – 38 (Etz Hayim, p. 1287; Hertz p. 999)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

On the eighth and final day of the ordination ceremony, Moses instructs Aaron, Aaron’s sons, and the Israelites about consecration rituals. Aaron offers his own purification offering and burnt offering. Next, he offers a purification offering, a burnt offering, and an offering of well-being on behalf of the people. Aaron first, then Moses and Aaron together, bless the people. The Presence of the Lord appears and a fire comes forth and consumes the offering on the altar.

Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu offer “alien fire” before the Lord. A fire comes forth and kills them. Moses tells Aaron and his two remaining sons that they must not engage in the normal mourning rituals, but the rest of the Israelites will mourn. The kohanim are prohibited from drinking alcohol while they are engaged in their sacred duties. Moses instructs Aaron, Eleazar, and Itamar about which of the various portions of the offerings they may eat.

God tells Moses and Aaron to instruct the people about the animals they are permitted to eat. Land animals must have cloven hooves and chew their cuds. Animals that have only one of these two markers and so may not be eaten are listed. Sea creatures must have fins and scales. No signs are given for birds; forbidden species are listed. Permitted insects are listed; all the rest are forbidden.

Animals whose carcasses transmit ritual impurity are listed. A general warning is given to guard against defilement and to be concerned about ritual purity.

1. Playing With Fire

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 He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord. (Vayikra 10:1-2)

  1. Bar Kappara in the name of Rabbi Jeremiah ben Eleazar said: For four things did the two sons of Aaron die: For drawing near, and for the sacrifice, for the alien fire, and for not consulting each other. For drawing near – that they entered into the innermost precincts; for the sacrifice – that they offered a sacrifice which they had not been commanded; for the alien fire – they brought in fire from the kitchen; and that they did not consult one another – as it is said: each took his fire pan – each one acted on his own, individually.

    Rabbi Mani, Rabbi Joshua of Siknin, and Rabbi Yohanan in the name of Rabbi Levi said: The sons of Aaron died for four things – because they had drunk wine; because they lacked the prescribed number of [ceremonial] garments; because they entered the Sanctuary without washing hands and feet; and because they had no children.

    Rabbi Levi said that they were arrogant. Many women remained unmarried waiting for them. What did they say? “Our father’s brother is a king, our mother’s brother is a prince, our father is a high priest, and we are both deputy high priests; what woman is worthy of us?” (Vayikra Rabbah 20)
  2. My grandfather (Rabbi Isaac Meir Alter of Ger) said that one can deduce from this that the most important component in the performance of commandments is the fact that one performs them because he was commanded to, rather than any lofty intentions he has in performing them. The proof is here, in that we see that Nadav and Avihu, who were great sages, surely had the most lofty of intentions, yet they were punished for doing something they had not been commanded to do. How much more, then, is the reward of a person who fulfills a commandment solely because it was commanded by God, even though he knows nothing about the hidden intentions involved. (Sefat Emet [Rabbi Judah Aryeh Leib Alter, 1874-1905, Poland])
  3. Closeness and nearness to God can be attained only by being disciplined to His will.… We may understand the death of the sons of Aaron on the eighth day of their consecration as a warning to future generations of priests to avoid personal and subjective predilections and ordinances of their own invention in their approach to the service in the sanctuary, which belongs to God and is governed by His law and not by any newfangled innovations introduced into the order of the service. Only by observance of the precepts of the Torah can the priest of Israel remain true to his principles. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888, Germany)

Sparks for Discussion

Why did God strike down Nadav and Avihu? The selections from Vayikra Rabbah (and many similar midrashim) search the text for clues to the sins for which they were punished. Why do the rabbis take this approach? When tragedy strikes, we want to know why. What do we achieve by blaming the victim? What do we lose?

The Sefat Emet focuses on the words which He had not enjoined upon them. Nadav and Avihu were not sinners in the conventional sense, they simply went beyond the letter of the law. How do you feel about this explanation?

Rabbi Hirsch adds another dimension. Nadav and Avihu were punished so severely because of their position as newly ordained priests. Do you agree that religious leaders should be held to higher standards? Does this apply only to their religious observance or to all aspects of their lives? What about leaders in government, business, and other areas of society?

2. The Sounds of Silence

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. (Vayikra 10:2)

  1. He received a reward for his silence. And what reward did he receive? That the word was especially addressed to him, for to him alone was said the section [regarding] those intoxicated with wine. (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. Scripture chose “vayidom” rather than “vayishtok” [synonyms of silence]. The latter signifies the abstention from speaking, weeping, moaning, or any other outward manifestation…. The verb “domem,” however, connotes inner peace and calm…. Accordingly, Scripture describes the saintly Aaron as “vayidom” and not merely as “vayishtok,” thus emphasizing that his heart and soul were at peace within, that rather than questioning the standards of God he justified the Divine verdict. (Shem Olam [Rabbi Eliezer Lipman Lichtenstein, 1848-1896, Poland])
  3. Aaron was silent from his mourning. He did not weep and he did not mourn, as is written in Ezekiel 24:16-17, O mortal, I am about to take away the delight of your eyes from you through pestilence; but you shall not lament or weep or let your tears flow. Moan softly; be silent in mourning the dead…. Here also he was silent although he wanted to mourn and weep. (Rashbam [Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, 1080-1158, France, grandson of Rashi])
  4. His heart turned to lifeless stone [domem – mineral], and he did not weep and mourn like a bereaved father, nor did he accept Moses’ consolation, for his soul had left him and he was speechless. (Don Isaac Abravanel, 1437-1508, Spain and Italy)

Sparks for Discussion

The Torah makes a point of telling us that Aaron witnessed the death of his sons and was silent. Rashi and Shem Olam understand Aaron’s silence as a sign of acceptance of God’s judgment. Rashbam and Abravanel see Aaron’s silence as external only. Why was Aaron silent? Did he accept and feel at peace with what God had done? Was he in shock? Did he believe that his position as high priest required him to hide his emotions in public? Was he so filled with anger that he was speechless? What did Aaron’s silence communicate?


 
 
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