D’var Torah: Parashat Shemini

5 Apr

Torah (Photo credit: quinet)

With Pesach and its rigors now in the rear view, we can turn our attention to the distinctions that the Torah makes between ritually pure and impure. In previous parshiyot we have established the laws of the sacrificial rite and the group of people, the priests, who will be tasked with carrying out the duties of sacrificing. Based on that, it may be safe to assume that anybody can bring an offering to the priests whenever they wish in whatever fashion they wish, as a means of approaching, appeasing, and demonstrating appreciation for God. Coming to dash that notion is the upsetting story of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu in Chapter 10 of Leviticus. As members of the priestly class, they bring an offering which the Torah calls “strange,” the offering is not accepted since it was not a commanded offering, God responds by consuming them with fire. According to the Torah, Aaron is silent after the death of his sons. What happened here, why are offerings not permitted at any time and without Divine command? Why is Aaron silent?

I assumed that there must an element of the sacrificial system that I misunderstood, and the missing element was the reason for the demise of the two sons. Upon looking at additional sources, midrashim and commentaries, it appears that a more accurate question to ask would have been , what is it about Nadav and Avihu that makes them and their offerings different, which to my mind highlights the potential pitfalls of becoming members of the chosen class of a chosen people. According to Midrash Rabbah, Rabi Levi says that they were arrogant. They saw themselves too holy to marry any woman, and were contemplating their ascendance to positions of national leadership while those holding leadership positions were still alive. There is a disagreement among the voices in the midrash as to whether they uttered these words or only harbored them in their hearts. A final, anonymous opinion in Misrash Rabbah suggests that that they should have died at Sinai for peering at the Divine presence, directly disobeying instructions. Other texts also focus on personal faults of Nadav and Avihu, and almost all of them are related to the overplaying of their chosen status. As I wrote two weeks ago, there comes a certain level of responsibility with any set of privileges, from the incident here it is obvious that a level of humility is equally important. So while it may not be possible to answer my original question about the, the answer to the second question is based in the notion that humility must be maintained even as a person holds onto high rank and significant responsibility.

Aaron, who is silent following the death of his sons, demonstrates a level of humility that while exemplary is probably difficult to match. Just like with Job, later in the Tanakh, it would be completely predictable and understandable reaction to become incensed with God following the tragic loss, but neither Job nor Aaron take that route. We could read their response cynically, and assume that they were in shock, or their anger was not described by the text. Of course silence is one aspect of mourning in Tractate Brachot 6b Rav Papa says, “The merit of attending a house of mourning lies in the silence observed,” sometimes there is simply nothing to say, and respectful but reflective silence is the most appropriate. Offering a different interpretation of the silence is Rabi Nachman of Breslav who writes, “In youth, one learns to talk; in maturity, one learns to be silent. This is man’s problem: that he learns to talk before he learns to be silent.” Aaron, who is now charged with doing the communicating of God’s word, a tremendous responsibility, must retain his ability to be silent. Therefore, at a time when any words emanating from the mouth of Aaron would have been acceptable and understandable given the circumstances, that he chooses silence is a monumental decision. Whether his is silence of anger, mourning, quiet reflection, or humility, Aaron’s maturity and humble readiness for leadership are conveyed through his silence.

Shabbat shalom.


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