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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 Adina Judy Bernstein :: 5769

Adina studied modern History and now studies Theology. Adina is particularly interested in issues of feminism and gender in Judaism. Currently researching her dissertation on tsniut (laws governing women's dress), she would love to speak to you about your experiences! When not studying, Adina enjoys interfaith dialogue and teaching cheder.

On the eighth day, following seven days of inauguration, Aaron and his sons Nadav and Avihu are inaugurated to practise as priests. As High Priest, Aaron is instructed by Moses to make the first offerings in the Mishkan (Tabernacle; a Temple in a tent) to consecrate it. Interestingly, Moses issues this instruction twice; first in Vayikra (Leviticus) 9:1:

"Take thee a bull-calf for a sin-offering, and a ram for a burnt-offering, without blemish, and offer them before the Lord."

And then again a few verses later in Vayikra 9:7:

"Draw near unto the altar, and offer thy sin-offering, and thy burnt-offering, and make atonement for thyself, and for the people; and present the offering of the people, and make atonement for them; as the LORD commanded.:

Why did Aaron need to be told twice? According to Rashi, Aaron was ashamed to approach the altar, because of his participation in the sin of the golden calf. Moses had to encourage him to approach the altar, and remind him that as High Priest, this was what he had been chosen to do.

There is a Midrash which compares Aaron to a shy bride: Aaron was scared about having an intensely intimate relationship with G-d, and as he approached the altar, he 'saw' a calf, reminding him of the golden calf. Aaron could not escape his guilt until Moshe pushed him to conquer his fears and offer the sacrifice.

Indeed, the Degel Machaneh Ephraim - the grandson of the Hassidic Master the Baal Shem Tov – comments that G-d chose Aaron for this role specifically because he possessed this attribute of shame. In other words, G-d wasn't looking for a haughty High Priest who thought himself perfect, but rather, someone who acknowledged the shame of what he had done in the past, but was able to learn from this, and continue to live and do his religious duty.

And so, Aaron offers the sacrifices, and blesses the people, and G-d sends a fire to consume the sacrifices. Yet just as everyone is very excited by the inauguration ritual, tragedy strikes:

"And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. And there came forth fire from before the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord."

In other words, they offer a foreign offering, and they die in the process. This incident gives rise to numerous questions, which many commentators have attempted to answer; What exactly was their sin, why did they do it, and why did it cause their death? These are not questions it is possible to answer. The Sifra comments that following G-d's sending of heavenly fire, Nadav and Avihu wanted to reciprocate with a display of their own love of G-d by bringing fire and incense. However, they did not wait for Moses to command them, and decided instead to enter the Holy of Holies, which even the High Priest may enter only once each year. In a sense, then, Nadav and Avihu's problem was that they lacked the humility displayed by Aaron earlier.

According to Vayikra Rabbah, the third-century scholar Bar Kappara stated that a big part of Nadav and Avihu's 'wrongdoing' was for not taking counsel from one another, as Vayikra 10:1 uses the words "each of them his [own] censer"; Nadav and Avihu acted on their own initiative, without stopping to discuss it with each other or with Moses. As a university student, I'm sure we've all been in situations where everyone gets carried away with a silly or haughty idea, and we forget to sit down and actually talk it through. Yet the whole idea of being a "community" is that we do things "together".

Aaron, Nadav, and Avihu were all extremely 'good' people, chosen to be Priests. And yet we see Aaron torn-apart by his own shame at old sins, juxtaposed against Nadav and Avihu, so confident that they know what is right, that they need not even consult each other. What can we learn from this? A sense of being grounded in oneself, perhaps, is what is called for. If I were as harsh on myself as Aaron is with himself, I doubt very much whether I'd be able to live with myself and all the slip-ups I've done, and still, as we have seen, Aaron's humility was the characteristic which made G-d choose his. So how can we be humble, without being paralysed by guilt?

Guilt is something Jews seem to be very good at, and sometimes we beat ourselves up over what we did wrong, rather than noticing how much we did right. Yet the Jewish word for a transgression, "chet" means that we "missed the mark". A determined archer doesn’t give up trying for the target because of one "miss"; they continue trying, knowing that the next arrow brings another chance. Judaism seems to be a religion of optimism: we all know we make mistakes, and we all know we'll make more mistakes, but we also know we can't be wracked by guilt all the time. Just as Moses pushed Aaron to move on and step-up to his new duty, we have to learn from our mistakes, but still be able to live with ourselves.

As we leave Pesach and move into the month of Iyar and the rest of the year, perhaps we can remember the words of the RnB singer Aaliyah:

"if at first you don't succeed… Dust yourself off and try again, try again (and again)".


More by Adina Judy Bernstein

Another voice by Tuvit Shlomi

Tuvit Shlomi is a volunteer for Limmoed Netherlands and a very committed Limmudnik.

In Parashat Shemini, everything and everyone is moving. The inauguration of the physically challenging portable Temple – the Mishkan – and its servants, required physical efforts of all the children of Israel to find, collect and prepare their offerings. The peace offering even required special movements of the priests – moving the offered breast sideward and the shank upwards – all to please the Almighty. Nadav and Avihu decided on inventing movements to create awe for their personal sake – and died. While the laws of kashrut required of the Israelites to move into a different lifestyle. And of course all of this began with the people moving out of Egypt, moving from slavery into freedom, from materialism into spiritualism.

The stress on physicality might seem somewhat strange for a people traditionally associated with studying round the clock. But also in Judaism, physical movement is purposeful. It not only distinguishes the sacred from the profane, as the Mishkan and its priests show, or the pure from the impure, as the kashrut laws clarify, but it also distinguishes the collective from the individual. The spiritually gifted Nadav and Avihu don’t want to serve the purpose of the greater community and are killed by the Almighty. Their evenly gifted relatives are even told not to mourn over their beloveds’ death as that would anger Hashem even more. But, they are told: the collective of the people of Israel will mourn in your place. Thus, this Parasha encourages every one of us not to stand still, but to move.

Yudel Krinsky, the refugee and ex-Siberia detainee selling oil paint to little Asher Lev in Chaim Potok’ s novel My Name Is Asher Lev, summarizes it beautifully. While he tries to get the always dreaming, absent-minded Asher to sort paint brushes together with him, he tells the little boy: "A Jew should not only talk, he should also do." Wherever you are on your Jewish journey, you have been freed from Egypt and you have been granted your own talents to contribute to this world. Whether you dance, study, talk, cook, clean or pray it – move yourself to the max!


More by Tuvit Shlomi

Other Divrei Torah on Shemini

  • 5766 (Norman Lamm)
  • 5766 (Bradley Shavit Artson)
  • 5767 (EJ Cohen)
  • 5767 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5768 (Alastair Falk)
  • 5768 (Gideon Rabinowitz)
  • 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)