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Parashat Shemini

April 8, 2010

By Steve Altarescu

I once attended a meditation workshop at a Jewish retreat led by Rabbi Miles Krassen. He introduced a long meditation through which one could experience God’s presence as being within us and surrounding us and ultimately the realization that there is nothing other than God. Through our communal Hebrew chanting, interspersed with periods of silent meditation many of us were brought to an “enlightened” state. What I found most compelling was that I was overcome with a desire to reach out to others and give of myself and not to just sit and enjoy the “high”.

In this week’s parashah, Sh’mini, we are told the baffling story of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, who are killed when they offer ‘alien’ fire to God. We are not given a reason for their deaths, although some see clues within the text by which they might argue justify their deaths. While I can’t justify their deaths, I still think there is an important teaching here.

This event occurs right after an elaborate, highly structured and ritualized service of sacrifice performed by Aaron and his sons, ending with Moses and Aaron blessing the entire community. It is interesting that the same language is used to describe the offering of Aaron and his sons and the offering that Nadav and Avihu make on their own. In both cases God “consumes/akhal” their offering:

When Aaron and his sons make their offering the text states, “Fire came forth from before God and consumed the burnt offering” (Leviticus 9:24)

In regard to Nadav and Avihu, it states, “Fire came forth from before God and consumed them” (Lev. 10:2)

In both cases there is an intention to bring an offering but the results are different. Moses’ and Aaron’s offering is prescribed by God and results in a shared experience of God among all of the Israelite people. Before the fire of God comes forth we are told “the Presence of God appeared to all the people” and after the fire consumes their offering we are told, “and all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces” (Lev. 9:23-24). Notice that the Presence of God does not appear prior to God’s consuming the offering of Nadav and Avihu and that it does not have the same effect on the community.

After their deaths, Moses states: “This is what God meant when God said, ‘With those near to Me I am sanctified and before all the people I will be honored.'” (Lev. 10:3). Moses’ understanding of God’s intention teaches that God only wants closeness that honors God in relationship to the entire community. There is an important difference between the attempts of closeness to God through the offerings of Moses and Aaron as opposed to those of Nadav and Avihu. The former is for all of the people and the latter is an attempt at closeness that is just for them.

In this way, the text seems be teaching us about the meaning of the institution of biblical sacrifices in general. Translated for our modern time, we can derive a similar lesson that is relevant to our rituals and prayers and perhaps all of our actions.

The root of the word used for an offering or sacrifice is korban, literally “to draw close”. Aaron is told by God to bring offerings of purification and wholeness in order to bring the entire community close to God. The text tells us that these ritual offerings are being given “for today God will appear to all of you”. (Lev. 9:4)

It is clear that these rituals were intended to bring all of the people closer to God, not just the priests. This was God’s promise if they carried out the rituals as they were intended. In contrast, Nadav’s and Avihu’s actions may have been understood by Moses as being self serving. Their offering appears to bein contrast to the intention of priestly offerings which were for the entire community. For instance, Moses explained to Aaron’s remaining sons that the sin-offering was to “gain forgiveness for the sin of the community.” (Lev. 10:17)

Many people use personal prayer, meditation, yoga or psychedelic drugs in order to have an experience of enlightenment, serenity or closeness to the divine. While these attempts may provide a momentary spiritual high, our text teaches us that there is an inherent lack in these solo expeditions if they are not done with the intent of serving the community.

Our tradition provides a balance between the individual and group purposes of our rituals. There are daily individual prayers for thanking God for our bodies and our souls as well as blessings we say over food, drink and appreciation of the natural world. In the silent Amidah, which is said individually, most of the prayers are for the community. While we can always pray alone, only certain prayers, usually those that sanctify God, can only be said when we have a minyan.

This is a beautiful guide for thinking about the intention of our rituals and prayers. Is there a balance in our intentions? Are some of our rituals and prayers done for the community and are they motivating us to reach out to others? Do some lead us, as individuals, to be closer to God, and through this closeness move us to be more compassionate in all of our relationships?

May each of us be blessed with a rich inner life that leads to the development of a caring heart that reaches out for a balance in serving our own needs and serving each other as we strive for God.


Steve Altarescu is a rabbinical student at The Academy for Jewish Religion.