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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 Alastair Falk :: 5768

Alastair Falk is the Educational Leadership Director of the UJIA. He has been a headteacher of three schools, a Jerusalem Fellow and, nearly 30 years ago, he was the originator of Limmud.

One of the common contemporary responses to the laws of kashrut described at the end of Parashat Shmini is 'how relevant are these today?' The search for 'relevance' in our religious lives is understandable. But if this means we need every law and ritual to 'make sense' in terms of what we know and understand empirically, then are we in danger of missing an enchanting metaphysical wood for some reassuringly solid looking trees? For as much as we need a hard and realistic understanding of why we do what we do, we may also still need to retain some sense of mystery and tradition, some willingness to embrace the unknowable or as yet unknown.

This may be part of the meaning behind a disturbing incident in this week's Parasha. Following the completion of an elaborate ritual to dedicate the Mishkan, the climax of which is fire descending from God to consume the sacrifices, Aaron's two sons, Nadav and Avihu decide to offer their own 'strange fire'. The response to this 'strange fire before the Lord, which He commanded them not,' is terrible and tragic. God again sends fire, but this time, it 'devoured them, and they died before the Lord'.

Jewish commentators through the ages have struggled to understand why this 'strange fire' caused such a reaction. The text is ambiguous. Were they punished for making up their own way of worship, or was it, as some suggest, because each son acted on his own, and the punishment, therefore, is a warning against sectarianism and unwillingness to communicate? For the writer Leon Wieseltier, the issue is that Aaron's sons are 'the patron saints - patron sinners, really - of Jewish impatience'. For in Judaism, he argues, 'revelation originates in detail and circulates through detail ... and the impatient Jew, for whom detail seems often like an impediment ... must ready himself to be the Jew in the wrong, at least by the terms of tradition.'

Many contemporary Jews thus find themselves 'in the wrong'. It is not that we do not want to be Jews, but we are impatient for meaning. Ancient texts, like the ancient rituals, structures and commandments, all seem to obscure what this means to me, today, in the here and now. But this, Wieseltier reminds us, is where we began. These are the texts and traditions that generations have tried to interpret, to adapt and to re-enact, in the hope, if only for a moment, of reconnecting with God, and of communicating (unlike Aaron's sons) with each other.

To be an 'impatient Jew', therefore, is both blessing and curse. Impatience drives the need to understand, to commentate, and to continue our tradition of 'arguments for the sake of heaven'. For others, it drives their passion for social action, for change and improvement, for tikun olam. But, when things are not immediately clear or when we are not immediately successful, impatience may lead in another direction, to being consumed by the 'strange fires' of meaninglessness and despair. And when we turn inwards, impatient with ourselves, then we should remember Aaron's response in the face of this still incomprehensible tragedy. 'Vayidom Aharon' says the text, 'And Aaron held his peace'. There is a balance between acceptance and action, between a temporary loss of faith and a much deeper and more terrifying loss of heart.


More by Alastair Falk

Another voice by Gideon Rabinowitz

Parashat Shmini comes in the middle of an endless sea of ritual details about the temple (that time of year the parasha ratings struggle above 2 stars) and presents the demise of Nadav and Avihu, after what seems like a sincere effort to celebrate the dedication of the temple by bringing a spontaneous and un-commanded offering.

It is, perhaps, easy for us to conclude that such details and this episode illustrate that the God of the Torah is more interested in random ritual details rather than spontaneous religious expression (an accusation Spinoza would sympathise with) and is as unpredictable and cruel as the gods of Abraham's time (see Heschel's vivid description of near Eastern Gods in "The Prophets").

In a vain attempt to make sense of this and rescue our view of God, perhaps we can view the temple as the one place where human autonomy was completely sacrificed so that we could literally walk in the footsteps (and sprinklings) of God and leave the temple with a greater sense of God's presence. Nadav and Avihu failed to recognise this and were (many would say cruelly) punished.


More by Gideon Rabinowitz

Other Divrei Torah on Shemini

  • 5766 (Norman Lamm)
  • 5766 (Bradley Shavit Artson)
  • 5767 (EJ Cohen)
  • 5767 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 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)