Parashat Shemini 5781

Click HERE for an audio recording of this D’var Torah

A D’var Torah for Parashat Shemini
By Rabbi Enid Lader (’10)

Our Torah portion’s opening chapters recount the celebration of Aaron’s and his son’s installation as Kohanim (Priests) and conclude with tragic loss, the punishment by a fiery death of Aaron’s oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, who “…offered before the Eternal alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them,” and who were then consumed by fire that “came forth from God.” (Leviticus 10:1-2). Moses makes an attempt to explain God’s actions: “Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the Eternal meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.’” In response, “…Aaron was silent” (Leviticus 10:3).

Our Haftarah portion shares a similar story of celebration turning to tragic loss as King David is moving the Ark of the Covenant from Avinadav’s house to Ir David – The City of David: “Meanwhile, David and all the House of Israel danced before the Eternal to [the sound of] all kinds of cypress wood [instruments], with lyres, harps, timbrels, sistrums, and cymbals. But when they came to the threshing floor of Nakhon, Uzzah reached out for the Ark of God and grasped it, for the oxen had stumbled. The Eternal was incensed at Uzzah. And God struck him down on the spot for his indiscretion, and he died there beside the Ark of God.” (II Samuel 6:5-7) David’s response is two-fold: In memory of what happened, he names the spot Peretz-Uzzah ([God’s] breach of Uzzah), and out of fear, he diverts the Ark to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite where it rests for three months. (ibid., 6:8-11)

Throughout the ages, these stories have generated countless commentaries that seek to understand what great sin could warrant such a divine act of severe retribution. Perhaps Nadav and Avihu made a halachic decision in the presence of their teacher, Moses, or they entered the sanctuary intoxicated (Rashi). Or, they died before God thinking that they were doing something acceptable to God (Ibn Ezra). Or, this was belated punishment for something their father, Aaron, had previously done in God’s presence (Or HaHaim recalls Aaron’s hand in making the Golden Calf). And what about Uzzah? And what about Uzzah? Uzzah was a layman, not a Kohatite, and should not have been transporting the Ark (Num. 4:15).

Why did this happen? How could it happen? There’s got to be a reason…

When loss occurs, especially tragic loss that comes “out of the blue”, these texts reflect our nature to seek answers, to do something, and, yes, to be at a loss for words and remain silent.

Loss is hard enough. When the deaths from the Covid pandemic are overlayed upon everything else, they can be overwhelming. Especially when they can happen so quickly. My husband’s oldest sister thought she had a bad cold; three days later we were shocked hearing of her death. Were there answers? She had actually tested positive for Covid earlier that week, but the test results did not come back until after she had died. What could we do? As so many have done and are doing, we held an online memorial service for her, and her family and friends zoomed in from around the country and the world. And then there was silence… and there was grief… And then it was time to move forward into life.

Each year we recall Nadav and Avihu and Uzzah, and each year we mourn them for their tragic deaths. For them and for all those who have died during this pandemic, zikhronam liverakha – May their memories be for a blessing.
Rabbi Enid C. Lader received ordination from AJR in 2010, and is the rabbi at Beth Israel – The West Temple in Cleveland, Ohio. She is the past-president of ARC (The Association of Rabbis and Cantors – the only joint rabbinical and cantorial professional organization in America), and is the treasurer of the Greater Cleveland Board of Rabbis. This d’var Torah is offered in loving memory of Anne Webster z”l.