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Words  of Wisdom for March 30, 2019

03/28/2019 05:38:42 PM


Sam Shnider

This week we read the portion of Shemini, the third portion of Vayikra, Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47, and the portion of the red heifer (Parah) Numbers 19:1 - 22, commemorating the purification before Passover.
The portion of Shemini completes the story of the dedication of the sanctuary. Beginning after the giving of the torah at Mt. Sinai, this story has spanned many months, numerous chapters, and countless details - from the contributions of each member of the congregation to the creation of the vessels, to the anointing of the priests, and the first gifts and sacrifices. The mishkan, the sanctuary, is finally complete, and the fire is poised to descend from heaven to the altar, to signify to the Israelites that the moment of union has come. Their gifts are acceptable; their work is complete; their love is reciprocated; and the presence of the Shekhina now dwells among Israel.
But at that very moment, two of the holiest members of the congregation, two of Aaron's sons, most perfect in all of their qualities, come forward with "a foreign fire, which was not commanded." Leviticus 10:1. Suddenly, the fire which was meant to the beacon of faith, the beginning of a new perspective, is transformed into a destructive force and the priests are consumed (see powerful artistic depiction here). And Aaron is left in a state of shock, between life and death, between the deepest mourning and the needs of the nation and congregation who have appointed him, the requirements of his role as high priest.
This story has always been one of the greatest paradoxes in the Torah. Were these priests guilty of a sin? Of entering the sanctuary drunk (Rabbi Ishmael, Second Century Sage), or of disrespecting Moses (the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer), or of inventing a new sacrifice that took them into the holy of holies (Vayikkra Rabbah)? Or were they simply overstepping their bounds, reaching the peak of ecstasy that a human body can no longer contain?
Can any of these explanations satisfy us? Can we simply explain away this type of tragedy? In the face of this loss, Aaron is silent. (10:3). He offers neither explanation, nor outburst. As a truly religious person he simply allows himself to feel, but does not question, does not seek to undermine, nor does he disintegrate: he simply continues with the acts necessary to heal and to live.
Several months later, on the day of atonement, Aaron is asked to officiate in the holy of holies. The ritual of the day of atonement is prefaced with the words "after the death of the two sons of Aaron." 16:1. Why? An immediate parallel is drawn between the day of atonement, Yom Kippur, and the day of the dedication of the temple, when the two sons of Aaron died. The meaning behind this parallel eludes us: Because there is always something that cannot be explained, even many months later. There is something about Nadav and Avihu's death that cannot be healed, but it must be healed in some fashion nonetheless, just as we cannot truly change the past, but we can transform ourselves on the day of Atonement. And something about the death of these two young men, who died at the peak of their lives, in the holy of holies, for no apparent reason, resounds with the same mystery as the mystery of Atonement itself, which is a celebration of life, and transformation, and continuity.
This week we had the privilege of having the visiting scholar Holly Hawkins, whose insights on death and mourning at the heart of Jewish tradition inspired us, and I encourage each person who is interested in further learning on the Jewish perspectives on dying, burial and mourning to reach out to her. I also encourage readers to read the powerful derasha here ("the deepest response of love").
Fri, July 10 2020 18 Tammuz 5780