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Torah Sparks

Parashat Shemini - Shabbat Parah
March 22, 2014 – 20 Adar II 5774

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 Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

On the eighth day of the priests’ consecration, Moses instructs Aaron to take a calf for a sin offering, an unblemished ram for a burnt offering, and to tell the Israelites to bring several other offerings, since this would be the day that God would “appear” before Israel. After Aaron blesses the Israelites, a fire emerges from God and consumes the burnt offering and fats that are on the altar.

But Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, each take a fire-pan with fire and incense, resulting in what the text refers to a “strange fire” that God had not commanded. Instantly, fire emerges from God and consumes Nadav and Avihu. Moses offers a cryptic explanation for their deaths, which is met by Aaron’s silence. Moses coordinates the removal of Nadav and Avihu’s bodies, then tells Aaron and his surviving sons not to mourn and not to leave their posts in the Tent of Meeting. God speaks to Aaron, commanding the new priests to not be under the influence of wine or beer while in the Tent of Meeting. Moses squabbles with Eleazar and Itamar, Aaron’s other sons, for not eating the purification offering. This time, Aaron is not silent; he defends his sons, because they are mourning the loss of their siblings. Moses backs off.

The text presents a lengthy list of the animals that are proper for the Israelites to eat. Permissible land animals must have a cleft hoof and chew their cud. Permissible water creatures must have fins and scales. There are no particular criteria for permissible birds; rather, a list of impermissible birds is given. Winged insects that walk on “all fours” are prohibited, except for those that leap with jointed legs above their feet. Other reptiles and amphibians are prohibited by name. To varying degrees, people who come into contact with impermissible animals are rendered impure; an affected person’s clothing, vessels and foodstuffs are also subject to such impurity. This even applies to someone touching the carcass of a permissible animal — even he is impure for the duration of the day. God tells the Israelites to not “draw abomination upon” themselves.

Theme #1: Eight Days a Week

On the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel. (Leviticus 9:1)

The final day of the priestly consecration begins with high hopes, as Israel’s leadership comes together for a glorious but fleeting moment.

The main idea here is this: the creation of the world was ordained according to the construction of the wilderness tabernacle. As we read in Megillah 10b, “‘On the eighth day,’ and it has been taught, on that day there was joy before the Holy One, as on the day when heaven and earth were created.” — Rabbi Meir of Rottenberg

This was really the beginning of the [book of Leviticus]. Why then was it written here [in the middle of the section]? Because of no strict order of “earlier and later” is observed in Scripture. — Mechilta

Just as a bird can only fly with its wings, so Israel can exist only with its elders. — Exodus Rabbah

Questions for Discussion:

Rabbi Meir of Rottenberg hints that just as there are seven days (six days of work and Shabbat) of creation, the seven days of the priests’ isolation leads to “the first day of the rest of their lives.” As much as we like to romanticize the joys of Shabbat, perhaps the most fulfilling aspect of it is returning to work after Shabbat ends, feeling refreshed and ready to go. Can we understand God’s joy on the dawn of the eighth day of the priestly consecration in the same way?

The Mechilta argues that the events of Leviticus 9 and 10 (the conclusion of the priestly consecration and the deaths of Nadav and Avihu) belong, time-wise, at the beginning of the book, immediately after the completion of the Mishkan. If that is so, would it make sense for the priestly consecration to take place prior to the descriptions of the sacrificial procedure found in Leviticus 1-7? Is it logical for the priests to undergo “job training” while officially working? When learning a new skill, when is it best to learn as we go along, and when is it better to concentrate on training before the first day on the job?

According to Exodus Rabbah, the elders of Israel represent the wings that allow Israel to fly. In modern times, why does our society sometimes forget to show proper respect to our elders? How can we ensure a proper place for the wise individuals who have so much wisdom to dispense?

Theme #2: Death and Silence

And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed [Nadav and Avihu]; thus they died at the instance of the Lord. 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. (Leviticus 10:2-3)

The death of Nadav and Avihu is perhaps one of the most perplexing events of the entire Torah. Trying to understand the motivations of Nadav, Avihu, Moses, Aaron and God has been one of the great challenges in the vast history of Torah commentary.

We may think of Nadav and Avihu, by virtue of their insistence upon immediacy, as the patron saints — patron sinners, really — of Jewish impatience. Inspired by a fire, they made a fire, and promptly they were destroyed by the inspiring fire. ... The “strange fire” is the fire brought by man. And what threatens man is not a deprivation of the divine, but a familiarity with the divine. Intimacy is the corruption of immediacy, in a world in which there is immediacy to be corrupted. — Leon Wieseltier, Congregation (David Rosenberg, ed.)

When Rabban Yohanan ben Zakai’s son died, his disciples came in to comfort him. ... Rabbi Yosi said, “Aaron had two grown sons, both of whom died in one day, yet he was comforted for the loss of them, as it is said, ‘and Aaron was silent’ (Leviticus 10:3) — his silence implies a willingness to be comforted. You, too, must be comforted.’” — Avot D’Rabbi Natan 14

Happy are the righteous! Not only do they acquire merit, but they bestow merit upon their children and children’s children to the end of all generations. Aaron had several sons who deserved to be burned like Nadav and Avihu, as is it said, “His sons that were left” (Leviticus 10:12), but the merit of their father stood up for them. — B. Talmud Yoma 87a

Questions for Discussion:

The motivations of Nadav and Avihu on the day of their death will never be known. Were they rebels who are put in their place by God? Or, rather, were they innocent victims of a capricious deity? Is it fair to assume that Nadav and Avihu were not functioning with sound mind and body from the fact that the command to not consume alcohol while approaching the Tent of Meeting came after the incident in the tabernacle? Or is it possible that these two brothers merely wanted to get close to God, and took it one step too far?

Many commentators criticize Aaron for his silence in the immediate aftermath of his sons’ death, wondering whether he is properly sensitive or caring. The excerpt from Avot D’Rabbi Natan suggests the opposite. Does the text tells us enough to evaluate Aaron’s silence? Is it possible to relate to his silence? Would it have been better if he cried out in anger or despair? As a community, are we receptive to our neighbors’ diverse responses to personal tragedy?

The excerpt above from Yoma tells us that Aaron’s righteousness limits the scope of the tragedy of this story — had he not been so righteous, none of his sons would have survived! Given that the actions of Eleazar and Itamar, Nadav and Avihu’s younger brothers, were not clear at the time of the offering of the strange fire, is it fair to presume Eleazar and Itamar’s guilt? Moreover, there are those who claim that this incident is “payback” for Aaron’s role in the incident of the Golden Calf. How does the excerpt from Yoma refute that claim?

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