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Shemini describes the consecration of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and its altar, during which Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, die as a result of offering ‘strange fire’. The Torah then describes the laws of kashrut (dietary laws) and the laws of purity.

Another voice

Shemini by Norman Lamm :: 5766

Norman Lamm, Dr., is Chancellor of Yeshiva University and Rosh Hayeshiva of its affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary

Beyond Respect

The Sidra records the tragedy that occurred when Aaron lost two of his sons, Nadav and Avihu, at the highest moment of his joy, the first day of the service initiating them into the priesthood.

For reasons that are not clear, the two young priests decided to change the prescribed order of service, and offered up a "strange fire" (Lev. 10:1), for which they were punished with immediate death. The reaction of Aaron to this disaster was – silence. But his brother Moses turned to him at this dramatic moment and said: "Through those that are close to Me I will be sanctified, and before the entire people I will be honoured" (Lev. 10:3).

What kind of consolation was this? What did Moses mean to tell Aaron – and us of succeeding generations?

If we listen closely to the words of Moses, we discern two concepts: kedushah and kavod, holiness and honour or respect. Both are worthy Jewish goals and represent high aspirations. Yet they are not identical; one is vastly more important than the other.

Kavod is an external, social act. When I give kavod to or honour someone, I perform an act of courtesy; but I do not imply acceptance of his principles. It is a gesture, possibly very sincere, but it does not touch my depths.

Kedushah, however, represents an inner transformation, a total commitment of the entire personality to a transcendent goal. It is an existential, not a social act. I can give kavod without being changed. When I strive for kedushah I risk a profound metamorphosis.

Now, kavod is something of which the masses are capable. But kedushah is something to which only the elite and the initiated are obligated. Isaiah calls out, in his famous "Seraphic Song", "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts, all the world is full of his glory (kavod)" (Isa. 6:3). God Himself is the highest expression of kedushah, but Kol ha-aretz, "all the world," perceives only His kavod.

This, then, is what Moses meant. "Before the entire people will I be honoured" – the entire people, the ordinary ones, can attain the level of kavod for God. They come to the Temple with respect, with decorum, and they are refined. But one cannot entrust leadership to them. However, for those who are close to God, kavod is insufficient; only the surpassing goal of kedushah is appropriate. And holiness imposes a most strict discipline.

This, then, is what Moses told Aaron: although you are silent, I know what goes in your heart. You ask: Why did they deserve this merely for a slight change in the order of service? And the answer is: for kol ha'am, ordinary people, it would be sufficient if they gave the Lord kavod or respect. But for Kohanim, for priests such as Nadav and Avihu, who are kerovai, close to the Lord – and who (according to one Midrashic (traditional Rabbinic narrative) source) were greater than Moses and Aaron – only kedushah will do. Their innovation in the service was a failure according to the norms of kedushah, and that is why they suffered such terrible retribution. So, Aaron, if they failed and they were punished, at least this is your consolation: they proved that they were kerovai, close to the Lord.

Herein lies a critique of the American-Jewish variety of religion. John Dewey wrote, "Nowhere in the world at any time has religion been so thoroughly respectable as with us – and so nearly totally disconnected with life." And Abraham Joshua Heschel has written of the "theology of respect" that seems to have gripped so much of America. Too many American Jews are willing to respect the synagogue, but not participate in what it stands for in any meaningful way. We must aspire to be amongst kerovai; and for such people, prestige and politeness alone are insultingly inadequate. Religion demands kerovai – passion and involvement and risk and courage. And the ideal of an authentic Jewish community must be to become a kehillah kedoshah, a "holy community."


More by Norman Lamm

Another voice by Bradley Shavit Artson

Among the other issues dealt with in this parasha, the Torah lists those animals that are not kosher and may not be eaten: the pig, the rabbit, shellfish, the stork, and forbidden insects.

The Talmud notes that the word for "stork" is hasidah, which they read as relating to the word hesed (loving-kindness). They note that the stork was given this illustrious name because it makes a point of sharing its food. Why then, if this bird is so praiseworthy, is it not kosher? Because it would only share food with its own kind.

Our hesed, if restricted only to providing for the needs and interests of our own kind, is treif (not kosher). To truly reflect God's attribute of hesed we must be willing, as is God, to seek the welfare of all God's creatures, and to pursue justice and peace for all humankind... The Jewish litmus test for authenticity is our willingness to respond with tzedek and hesed, justice and compassion, to the needs of the other.


More by Bradley Shavit Artson

Other Divrei Torah on Shemini

  • 5767 (EJ Cohen)
  • 5767 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5768 (Alastair Falk)
  • 5768 (Gideon Rabinowitz)
  • 5769 (Adina Judy Bernstein)
  • 5769 (Tuvit Shlomi)
  • 5770 (Alastair Falk)
  • 5770 (Hannah Kaye)
  • 5771 (Yuval Keren)
  • 5771 (Taste of Chavruta Team)
  • 5773 (Deborah Blausten)
  • 5773 (Sarah Snyder)
  • 5774 (Tanya Zion-Waldoks)
  • 5774 (Taste of Chavruta)
  • 5775 (Denise Handlarski)
  • 5775 (Peter Sevitt)