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Parashat Shemini

April 4, 2013

By Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman

Parashat Shemini begins with the ‘grand opening’ of the Tabernacle. Aaron and his sons have been properly garbed and consecrated for their task of serving as priests. Aaron offers the very first sacrifices upon the altar, and to the astonishment of all those gathered, God responds by sending forth a fire that consumes the offering on the altar. “Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering.” (Lev. 9:24) The people are overwhelmed by this display of God’s presence. The text relates “all the people saw and shouted and fell on their faces.” (Lev. 9:24) The sacrificial relationship between the people and God, that has been meticulously instructed, designed and carried out to perfection, has been consummated. The people have put forth their offerings for expiation from the sin of the Golden Calf and God has responded with acceptance. One might see this event as a second peak spiritual experience for the people after Sinai.

Following immediately on the heels of this event, the lens of Torah zooms in on Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons and newly minted priests. They each take some incense and place it in their pans with some fire and “offer before the Lord an alien fire, which God had not commanded them to do.” (Lev. 10:1)

In rather ironically parallel language the text states, “Fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died before the Lord” (Lev. 10:2) Many commentators have interpreted their death as a punishment for not obeying the rules. Some commentators blame them for bringing “an alien fire, not commanded by God.” Others see this event as a punishment to Aaron for participating in the Golden Calf. Such interpretations present major theological difficulties, for it presents God as a rigid, merciless, and vengeful deity.

Moses’ own comments to Aaron at the time do not reflect a punitive outlook. Rather, he tries to comfort his brother by saying, “This is what the Lord meant when he said ‘through those near to Me, I show Myself holy…” (Lev.10:3)

In a similar line of thought, Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, a 17th-18th century scholar from Morocco, writes in his Torah commentary, the Ohr Ha-Hayyim:

(Theirs was) a death by Divine kiss like that experienced by the perfectly righteous- it is only that the righteous die when the Divine kiss approaches them, while they died by approaching it… Although they sensed their own demise, this did not prevent them from drawing near (to God) in attachment, delight, delectability, fellowship, love, kiss, and sweetness to the point that their souls ceased from them.

Having just witnessed the presence of God in the fire that descended and consumed the offering, Nadav (whose name means free-will offering) and Avihu cannot contain themselves. With desire for more spiritual connection, these newly ordained priests rush to the altar to make another offering. They are met with the same response as the first sacrifice. That same fire issues forth, receiving their complete sacrifice. One senses that they did not understand the nature of the fire with which they were dealing. One can view their actions as stemming from a kind of spiritual greed mixed with naiveté. It is as if, intoxicated by the presence of God, they crave more spiritual intensity and sadly, find their actions resulting in a spiritual and physical overdose. Leviticus Rabbah 12:1, a fifth century collection of midrashic commentary on Leviticus, touches on this line of thinking by explaining that the admonition for priests to not enter the Tent of Meeting while intoxicated (Lev. 10:9) is based on the event of Nadav and Avihu.

“So it was that wine separated Aaron and his sons, for death. According to R. Shimon, the sons of Aaron died only because they entered the tent of meeting intoxicated with wine.”

Physical/spiritual intoxication is an altered state which can open the heart and allow for a deeper sense of connection with spiritual reality, but can also be taken to a dangerous and lethal extreme. The spiritual desires of Nadav and Avihu overcame their physical selves. The Torah responds with rules regarding intoxication while in the service of God.

In contradistinction to this section, the remaining text of the parashah shifts focus to the laws of kashrut. The reader is immersed in the rules for proper consumption of animals. The parashah appears to swing from the dangers of unbounded spiritual practice to the admonitions against unbounded physical consumption. The laws of kashrut put a check on our physical desires, requiring us to establish personal boundaries around food. The entire Torah portion of Shemini can be seen as establishing rules and boundaries regarding one’s physical and spiritual desires. Unbounded spiritual desire can lead to self-destruction on the one hand, and at its worst, a dangerous zealotry that destroys others and community. Unbounded physical consumption, leads to similar ends at a personal level as well as globally.

Judaism has always advocated walking the middle path. Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher and one of the most prolific and pre-eminent Rabbinic scholars of the medieval period, for example, in his work the Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Deot, chapter 1), describes human beings as unique in specific character traits. Some people may have an excess of certain traits such as humility on the one hand or pride on the other, greed or self-satisfaction, anger or equanimity, etc. In line with earlier sages, he cautions against extremes of temperament and advocates the middle path in the development of the personality. The middle path eschews extremes, embraces balance, and requires commitment. The Torah lays down the middle path before us, in ancient terms but with contemporary resonance. May we all strive to find the middle path for ourselves, for our families and our communities. The middle path is the path of balance, of tikkun and ultimately leads us to the path of peace.


Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman is the Founder and Director of Rimon: Resource Center for Jewish Spirituality in Great Barrington, MA www.rimonberkshires.org. She is also a Co-Founder and Co-Leader of The Berkshire Minyan, a trad/egal minyan that meets every Shabbat morning in Great Barrington.