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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 EJ Cohen :: 5767

EJ Cohen holds an M.A. in Jewish Education from Leo Baeck College and an M.Ed. in Deaf Education. She lives in London and works as the Resource Centre Librarian at Leo Baeck College, and is an American sign language interpreter who freelances internationally.

On the eighth day of the consecration of Aaron as the High Priest, the people were told to bring their sacrifices to the altar. Aaron's two eldest sons, Nadav and Abihu, offered a sacrifice that was above and beyond what was commanded. They'd added a 'strange fire' to their pan, and as a result of their disobeying, the fire consumed them, killing them.

Moses had the task of informing his brother that G-d said "Through those near to Me, I show Myself holy and gain glory before all the people." And Aaron was silent. He was further instructed not to mourn, not to rend his clothes and to carry on with his priestly duties, while the community mourned. Two parts of this intrigued me. First, the 'strange fire'. Some think it was added incense, which made the sacrifice more than what was requested or required. Therefore, newly named High Priests who added to or made up a new ritual went against the 'law'. When I read the following lines, which forbade the use of alcohol in the Sanctuary, I first wondered why this was next. Some commentaries think that Nadav and Abihu were drunk upon approaching the altar (Leviticus Rabbah 12:1 (traditional rabbinic narrative)), which showed a lack of respect or decorum and that is why they died. My first inclination, if they indeed were drunk, was to imagine that maybe some of the alcohol spilled into their offering - alcohol and fire would indeed make a 'strange fire'. As they remained intact, bodies and clothes, with their insides incinerated, this made sense to me.

The second was, where was Aaron's grief? Rabbi Melanie Aron gave a sermon stating that Nachmanides (13th century commentator) tells us that 'vy-y'dom' means 'then he became silent'. So did Aaron react first and become quiet second? These were his beloved sons, who would also become High Priests, and yet his reaction was silence. I have known various people who died in fires: my friend Susan in a horrific hotel fire, Stevie, a NYC fireman who was among the first group to go into the burning buildings on Sept. 11, the astronauts on the Challenger and Columbia shuttles. Seeing these events unfold live on TV was beyond belief... and I recall my first reaction as disbelief. Shock. Too stunned to scream. But the tears and grief did come pouring out later. Not so with Aaron.

I can't imagine what went through his mind; on the happiest, most important day of his life, being invested as a High Priest, and then seeing his sons die in front of him. I recall hearing of the sudden death of my own father (z"l), I was too numb to react. It wasn't 'real'. Possibly, that was analogous to Aaron's reaction. Having others mourn for you is not the same as doing it for oneself. Jewish tradition is that visitors to a house of mourning do not speak to the mourner until spoken to... maybe this is to allow the mourner to express his/her feelings, share memories and pay homage to the deceased. Aaron did not have that opportunity.

I also found it odd that Moses had told G-d that he was slow of speech and hesitant to speak to Pharoah; he asked Aaron to do it, with Aaron becoming the first interpreter. (Exodus 4:16) However, Moses now becomes the interpreter of G-d's wrath to his brother, reversing the roles. As Aaron followed G-d's wishes, he too was rewarded - by having G-d speak directly to him. An honour to be sure, but at what price?

We need to remember that respect is our responsibility. We should not behave drunkenly or disrespectfully in a house of prayer or a house of mourning. By allowing the mourner to reflect on his/her loss, we, as a caring community, can lead better lives to honour those who came before us.

Shabbat shalom.


More by EJ Cohen

Another voice by Taste of Limmud Team

The book of Vayikra (Leviticus) contains a series of laws related to sacrifices in the Mishkan (tabernacle). Time stops and a different focus to the largely narrative focus of the first two books of the Bible occurs with two exceptions - one of them is in this week's Parshah (for the other see Vayikra 24, 10 - 23).

In this week's parshah this exception is an emotion-filled 11 verses telling of the death of Nadav and Avihu who offered "strange fire". We are used to rabbinic sensitivity in terms of their written interpretation of these events. Yet written interpretation is not only by words - it can be by signs as well and the regularity of the Rabbinic musical notation is punctured in this passage; clearly a deliberate Rabbinic reflection as is shown below of the emotion of the events. The text says (Chapter 10, 1) that Nadav and Avihu offered a strange fire "which the Lord had not commanded them". The word "not" is notated with the highly unusual double mercha which according to the Hertz Chumash is meant to be sung to a rolling tune. A few verses later in verse 4 after these two deaths Moses asks two others to approach. On the word "approach", the Rabbis put two musical notations which never otherwise appear on any single word. Both according to the Hertz Chumash are to be sung with rolling melodies. This passage is an emotional rollercoaster and the Rabbis knew it only too well.


More by Taste of Limmud Team

Other Divrei Torah on Shemini

  • 5766 (Norman Lamm)
  • 5766 (Bradley Shavit Artson)
  • 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)