Parashat Shemini

Boundaries, Sanctity, And Silence

Although we can attempt to understand the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, we are ultimately limited and often feel powerless in the face of God.

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Provided by the Union for Reform Judaism , the central body of Reform Judaism in North America.

Parashah Overview

  • Aaron and his sons follow Moses' instructions and offer sacrifices so that God will forgive the people. (9:1-24)

  • Two of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, offer "alien fire" to God. God punishes these two priests by killing them immediately. (10:1-3)

  • God forbids Moses, Aaron, and his surviving sons to mourn but commands the rest of the people to do so. Priests are told not to drink alcohol before entering the sacred Tabernacle and are further instructed about making sacrifices. (10:4-20)

  • Laws are given to distinguish between pure and impure animals, birds, fish, and insects. (11:1-47)

Focal Point

Now Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before Adonai alien fire, which God had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from Adonai and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of Adonai. Then Moses said to Aaron, "This is what Adonai meant when God said: / Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, / and assert My authority before all the people." / And Aaron was silent (Leviticus 10:1-3).

Your Guide

The death of Aaron's sons seems to be a punishment for some transgression. Did they know that they had done something wrong? Without a clearer sense of "due process," how is God's holiness and glory manifested in this instance?

The phrase lifnei Adonai (usually translated as "before God" or "in God's presence") appears three times in this passage. Can this phrase be understood as something other than direct divine intervention? Is it possible that the deaths of Nadab and Abihu merely occurred "in God's presence" and were not necessarily a punishment? What other reasons could be cited for their deaths?

Moses addresses Aaron with an explanation of God's reasons for what happened. However, the text itself does not cite any specific explanation by God. Are Moses' words merely his own interpretation of the tragedy? If so, what are their implications?

After the deaths of his sons, Aaron was silent. Was this an appropriate response? What might he have said and to whom?

By the Way…

Nadab and Abihu were religious personalities and far be it for them to maliciously transgress the word of God. But out of a superabundance of joy, they lost their heads and entered the Holy of Holies to burn incense, which they had not been commanded by Moses but which they had done of their own accord.... These two figures did not transgress any explicit prohibition but merely exceeded the bounds of morality and modesty, and this was punished by death because of their elevated position (Biur in Studies in Leviticus by Nehama Leibowitz).

["And Aaron was silent." Leviticus 10:3] He was rewarded for his silence. And what was his reward? That the subsequent address (by God) was to him alone (Rashi). How do we know...that Aaron remained silent because he had accepted God's judgment? Couldn't he have remained silent simply because he was faced with the might of God against him, while inwardly he was seething?... It is a basic rule that God only appears to a person who is not sad or in mourning. Had Aaron been silent because of his mourning, God would never have appeared to him at that time (Tzeror Ha-mor in Torah Gems, volume 2, pp. 268-269).

In many circumstances, the feeling of a lack of power to alter circumstances is a greater problem to a father than to a mother.... Many sociologists would agree that a man...is more accustomed to bending events to meet his wishes. That he was more unable to control happenings surrounding the most important thing in his life...might be quite difficult to accept for such a father (Harriet Sarnoff Schiff, The Bereaved Parent, pp. 46 ff).

["Through those near to Me I show Myself holy." Leviticus 10:3] "Holiness"...is a category of interpretation and valuation peculiar to the sphere of religion.... We generally take "holy" as meaning "completely good".... But this common usage is inaccurate. It is true that all this moral significance is contained in the word "holy," but it includes an addition.... Accordingly, it is worthwhile...to find a word to stand for this element in isolation, this "extra" in the meaning of "holy" above and beyond the meaning of goodness.... [It] cannot, strictly speaking, be taught: It can only be evoked, awakened in the mind; as everything that comes of the spirit must be awakened (Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, pp. 5-7).

Your Guide

The concept of k'dushah (holiness) has to do with separating some things from others: Holy things have boundaries around them that are to be respected. The Biur explains that the transgression of Aaron's sons was that they violated those boundaries. At the same time, God's response is, "Through those near to Me I show Myself holy." How do you understand the tension between intimacy with the Divine and the need to respect the boundaries that separate the Divine from all else?

According to Tzeror Ha-mor, what is the reason for Aaron's silence? Do you agree with his contention that God would not have appeared to Aaron if Aaron had been sad or in mourning? Why?

Do you think, as Schiff does, that it is more difficult for a father than it is for a mother to handle feelings of powerlessness like those that stem from the seemingly inexplicable death of one's child?

Part of the religious commitment among Jews of all movements is a desire to promote k'dushah in the world and in everyday life. Yet Reform Judaism once emphasized only the "rational" aspects of religion while jettisoning those elements that were "nonrational." How do Reform Jews understand the concept of k'dushahtoday? Is it still synonymous with that which is "perfectly good" and "completely moral," or are there aspects of k'dushah, as Rudolf Otto maintains, that are independent of goodness and morality but nevertheless have to be acknowledged and affirmed?

D'var Torah

"A man's gotta know his limitations."

(Clint Eastwood as Inspector "Dirty Harry" Callahan)

On what was to be the happiest day of his life--the consecration of his sons and himself to God's service--Aaron experiences the deepest tragedy of his life: the deaths of two of his sons, Nadab and Abihu. Moses immediately offers Aaron a reason for this most unexpected occurrence, to which Aaron responds with silence.

Both the tragedy and Aaron's response raise many questions. What exactly was the "sin" of the two men? Was it the act per se, or was it their attitude? Was it arrogance, as many Sages believe, or was it an overabundance of religious passion, as others maintain? Furthermore, how could God allow this life-cycle event, which was both religiously and personally significant, to be marred?

Any parent who has lost a child--whether a young child or an adult child--certainly knows the feelings we would have expected of Aaron. Entrusted with power, authority, and influence, he is suddenly powerless, even impotent. And certainly his sense of confusion is heightened by the paradoxical words "Through those near to Me I show Myself holy:" That is, through those who know Me most intimately I will maintain my "Otherness."

Perhaps one of the hard lessons to be learned here is that affirming sanctity is ultimately about maintaining limits and boundaries. If Nadab and Abihu were indeed too zealous in their devotion by bringing to the altar that which God had not commanded, perhaps their sin was that they "broke through" those boundaries and thus compromised the sanctity of the moment and the Sanctuary itself.

Compare this with God's warning to Moses (in Exodus 19:12-13 and 21) that the people should not approach the mountain. Evidently, passion, even when it is religiously motivated, will ultimately compromise sanctity. Perhaps this is one reason why religious fanaticism is almost always held suspect.

At the same time, the suddenness of the men's deaths and the vagueness about why they died painfully remind us that when it comes to "the idea of the holy:" (1) Not every question of "why?" has a satisfactory answer; (2) Because we are not God, there are limits to what we as human beings can understand and thus control; (3) In the presence of One who is supreme above all creatures, we feel our limitations and powerlessness most keenly.

Indeed, there are times when awareness of the "awe-ful" can only be experienced in the midst of the dreadful.

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Rabbi Cary Kozberg

Rabbi Cary Kozberg is director of spiritual care at Wexner Heritage Village in Columbus, Ohio.