Parashat Shemini

From Regulation to Relation

Relationships between the individual and the Divine are indeed possible.

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That is perhaps the lesson of the deaths of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu which the text explains in short shrift: “Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire in it, and laid incense on it, and offered strange fire before God which God had not instructed them.  Then there came forth fire from before God and devoured them, and they died before God” (Leviticus 10:1-2).

In the rabbinic understanding of this text, they took the relationship with God--established in the context of their role as priests--for granted. In other words, they didn’t follow the rules of the system. While I see no justification whatsoever in the way these two young boys’ lives are taken and hold God responsible for the action, regardless of the voluminous apologies of the Rabbis in an attempt to explain away something that is beyond any form of reason, I know that there has to be some learning to emerge from it or their deaths will indeed have served no purpose whatsoever.

Relationships between the individual and the Divine are indeed possible and Leviticus gives us some insights from the ancient world as to how to form them, nurture them, and sustain them. At the same time, these relationships, because of their inherent power, are not to be taken lightly or for granted. It is the feminine and masculine in us all that makes our relationship with God and our access to that relationship through Torah rules possible.

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Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky

Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky is executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute and the author of numerous books about Jewish spirituality.