Wednesday, March 30, 2005

III-3 Shemini When Tragedy Strikes

30 March III-3 Shemini When Tragedy Strikes

Torah: Lv 9-11:47 JPS transl

Haftorah: 2 Sam 6:1-7:17 / Ez 45:18-46:15 JPS transl


1. Lv 9:1-16
2. Lv 9:17-23
3. Lv 9:24-10:11
4. Lv 10:12-15
5. Lv 10:16-20
6. Lv 11:1-32
7. Lv 11:33-47


Shemini continues with the dedication of the Mishkan, the Sanctuary or Tent of Meeting. The priests are secluded seven days during their ordination. During the procession of sacrifices, disaster suddenly strikes. Moses supervises Aaron and his sons in the sacrifices. Aaron brought a goat, as a sin offering on behalf of the people, followed by an ox and a ram for the people's well-being. Lifting his hands, he blessed the people before entering the Tent of Meeting with Moses. When they came out, they again blessed the people and the Divine Presence appeared. Fire issued from the Lord, consuming the burnt offering. Aaron's two sons, Nadav and Avihu, presented their fire pans containing incense., but they were struck dead. The parsha continues with the differentiation of kosher and nonkosher animals and the laws of purity and impurity, distinguishing between kashrut and purity. All animals are clean, but not all acceptable for eating. Extensive discussions of kashrut belong within the domain of halakha with rabbinic authority. Separation of kosher/nonkosher animals reflects the need to conserve the world entrusted to us from creation.


"Moses and Aaron then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of the Lord appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces" Lv 9:23-24

"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 the Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, "This is what the Lord meant when He said:

Through those near to Me I show Myself holy,
And gain glory before all the people."

And Aaron was silent. " Lv 10:1-3

"Then Moses inquired about the goat of sin offering, and it had already been burned! He was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron's remaining sons, and said, "Why did you not eat the sin offering in the sacred area? For it is most holy, and He has given it to you to remove the guilt of the community and to make expiation for them before the Lord."
Lv 10:16-19


For seven days, the newly ordained priests have rehearsed the rituals of their office and endured intense self-examination before the final presentation. They are in the last stage, just minutes before becoming publicly dedicated priests. The last seconds before the Presidential Inaugural Address, the last breath before the ski-jumper slides off the bench in the World Cup Finals to speed down the hill into space. There is no turning back, but only the future consequences of personal decision brought into public attention.

As spectators, we view the record as film devoid of the sound track. We see the procession, but suddenly a fireball clouds the lens. Two men lay lifeless on the ground. Incomprehensible, tragedy strikes at the high point of life. The gymnast flies off the high bar, but catches his feet on descent and lays broken on the floor. Horrified, we see buildings collapsing from the plane's impact. We seek for the rationale, for justification to explain the overwhelming tragedies of our lives-- often there are none. Desperatel, we try to console ourselves with hollow words; yet the grief, the loss is unspeakable. Why did it happen?

Tragedy is easier to accept when we can point the finger and rationalize it. The high school student on her way to the graduation ceremony, but never arrives in the parking lot in her car. The young soldier finally on the way home after months overseas, suddenly shot down days before his departure. Grief intensifies with its meaninglessness.. Coming into confrontation with our limitations and mortality, we feel bitter injustice.

Rabbis argue over the passage. They knew what to do. They were trained. The punishment seems so grossly injust. Risks were limited through proper indoctrination and yet the incomprehensible happened. Midrash and commentary reflect a myriad of interpretations, all trying to explain the inexplicable.

When tragedy strikes, we recoil with anxiety, questioning "Why me? Why?" The personal reactions of Moses and Aaron are contrasted in the passage. Moses said to Aaron, "This is what the Lord meant when He said: Through those near Me I show Myself holy." (Lv 10:3)

A bit much to swallow for a father in shock, but Aaron continues leading the people through the public ceremony without rebutting. He is silent. Later Moses upbraids him regarding the sin offering inadvertantly left on the altar and completely consumed by fire. "Why did you not eat the sin offering in the sacred area? For it is most holy, and He has given it to you to remove the guilt of the community and to make expiation for them before the Lord." (Lv 10:17)

Oftentimes we must fulfill our public obligations despite personal tragedy. Instinctively, we yearn for escape to relieve our distress privately, but responsibilities demand our presence. Aaron fulfills his duty despite a father's grief. He leads the show. Torn between his public obligations as the High Priest and those of a bereaved father, he has no appetite for eating or celebration. No words assauge his loss. Often, well-intentioned people offer hollow consolation, "He was a good man. He lived next to God." Falling like loose change, the words clatter on the ground.

Moses instructs the uncles regarding the disposal of the bodies, continuing the ceremonies without interruption. He seems inhuman, dedicated only to law and protocol. Moses, the dutiful policeman, instructs the paramedics how to clean up after a terrible accident with the mask of rigid action, more dedicated to legalities and ritual than given to human compassion. We never see his internal turmoil, but hear only the response and instructions. Likewise we rarely hear or see the personal reactions of those so dedicated in our society to the restitution of order after a tragedy. We do not know the pain of the fatigued doctor or the anguish of the policeman, arriving on the scene after a grisly accident. We assure ourselves that they are in their element. They are professionals. They know how to react and they know what they are doing—yet we sympathize with the victims' families, weeping with them.

In truth, we need both sides to survive the inexplicable tragedies besetting us. We can identify crib death, but often we cannot truly avoid it. In everything we do, even when we know the exact protocols and procedures, risk remains. After a tragedy happens, there are questions and investigation and explainations—they offered a "strange fire" to the altar of the Lord; but the explanation falls short of human comprehension.


Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently... The Lord said to Moses, "Go down, warn the people not to break through to the Lord to gaze, lest many of them perish. II-5 Yisro Ex 19:18-21

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Tzav: Ears, Thumbs, and Toes
My Jewish Learning
"Philo (1st Century Egypt), perceived that, "The fully consecrated must be pure in words and actions and in life; for words are judged by hearing, the hand is the symbol of action, and the foot of the pilgrimage of life.""


Rabbi Cary Kozberg, Shemini: Boundaries Sanctity and Silence
provides commentaries on the deaths of Nadav and Avihu
" 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."

Beth Freishstat, Shemini: Death Grief and Consolation

Kolel, Shemini 5762
four different interpretations of the deaths of Nadab and Avihu

Rabbi Pinchas Avruch, HaKollel Shemini 5763: Safety in Numbers

Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann, Olas Shabbos 5761: Un-influenced Service

Rabbi Robert S. Leib Tzav: Lost and Found: From Obsolete Ritual to Personal Responsibility
My Jewish Learning

Rabbi Levi said: It is a praiseworthy enactment that a person who behaves boastfully should be punished by fire, as it is said, "This is the law regarding a person striving to be high: It is that it goes up on its burning place." [Note: The burnt offering (ha-olah) is linguistically related to the verb, alah, "to go up," "rise," "ascend," and is midrashically taken here to mean climbing to pretentious heights, assuming an insolent and overbearing attitude.] (Leviticus Rabbah 7:6 on Leviticus 6:2)

Yanki Tauber, Chabad, Shemini: Consumed

Chabad, Keeping in Touch: Shemini

Rav Kook, Shemini: The Error of Nadav and Avihu
a cabalist explanation

II-5 Yisro


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