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Parshat Shemini


Parshat Shemini describes the most important day in the Torah. The inauguration of the Mishkan, the day it becomes invested with the Glory of God marks the culmination of Sefer Shemot. The Ramban names Sefer Shemot, as Sefer Geulah, the book of Redemption. It is important to note that the redemption of Am Yisrael is not complete with our leaving Egypt, nor is it complete having arrived at Har Sinai to receive the Torah. Rather our redemption is only complete when we have built a home for HaKadosh Baruch Hu to dwell in our midst – as described in the last five Parshiyot of Sefer Shemot. Not only does this famous Eighth Day mark the end and completion of Sefer Shemot but it is described again in Sefer Bamidbar and forms one of the few central narratives in Sefer Vayikra a book which is mostly Mitzvot. It is therefore no exaggeration to describe Yom HaShemini as the most famous day in the Torah.

Yom HaShemini describes the wondrous investment of the Mishkan with the Glory of God, but it also contains the tragic death of Aharon’s two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu. An investigation of the reasons for their death will lead us to an interesting analysis of the proper relationship between intellect and emotion. While the Torah gives a reason for the death of Nadav and Avihu the Midrash finds it necessary to further elaborate. The Torah tells us they “brought a strange fire for which they were not commanded” (Vayikra 10:1). The Midrash suggests other contributing causes which I believe are brought to help us understand the root causes that underlie the sin. One Midrash suggests they entered without donning completely the priestly attire. This approach turns the sin into one of negligence to the strict details pertaining to the entire encounter with the Divine at its most intense epicenter. A friend once explained this sin by way of an analogy to astronauts in space. When man decided to make the audacious decision to travel in a realm that was completely other and foreign to his normal existence – outer space – he had to take enormous care that his protective layers were exactly in place. The people at NASA had to build million dollar space suits and insure that every last tile on the space shuttle’s heat shield was precisely attached. One false move and the results would be tragic. When Nadav and Avihu decided to leave the familiar and attempt an encounter in the realm of the Divine they too needed to be precise about their precautions but instead they got swept away with the enthusiasm of the moment which perhaps distracted them from the necessary attention to detail. The Yalkut Shimoni also addresses the emotions which swept over Nadav and Avihu. Without giving any particular sin, the Yalkut Shimoni says they came to “add Love to Love” “Lehosif ahava al ahava.” The love Hashem showed by placing his Shechina among us was answered by Nadav and Avihu by their spontaneous desire to also draw close. The absence of sin in the Yalkut Shimoni suggests that Nadav and Avihu perhaps achieved exactly what they wanted, an all consuming encounter with the Divine.

The act of Nadav and Avihu and its’ consequences leads us to contemplate the proper place of religious emotion. The encounter would seem to critique the unbounded, spontaneous emotional quest for spirituality. Still we must be cautious with a conclusion that might negate the place of emotion because the story of Nadav and Avihu has an important counter-narrative. While it is true that Halachic Judaism teaches that Kedusha requires preparation and that religious emotions are circumscribed by protective Halachot, it is not true that the emotive realm is always secondary to the objective Halacha. Nadav and Avihu certainly seem to get into serious trouble as a result of their intense enthusiasm which compromised their obedience to God’s instructions. But what are we to make of the argument between Aharon and Moshe over the proper handling of the Seir HaChatat, (the Korban which the Kohanim were supposed to eat in the Kodesh) in the aftermath of the death of Nadav and Avihu? (Vayikra 10:16-20) While Chazal recast the discussion as a Halachic discourse over the proper definition of the Korban under discussion, the Peshat tells a more direct and simple disagreement. Moshe expects business as usual – that the mourning father Aharon eat the Korban like he would on any other day. But Aharon responds with a very emotional plea:
“And all this has happened to me, and were I to eat today, would it really be good in the eyes of Hashem?” (Vayikra 10:19) Aharon, basically says that with all that has happened to me today, can I really be expected to do business as usual and eat as if nothing has occurred. In the end, Moshe accepted Aharon’s explanation. (Vayikra 10:20): “And Moshe heard and it was good in his eyes.” In this case, Aharon expresses a need to react to the tragedy of the day and Moshe accepts that that is the correct way to behave. While there is an order, a way in which things ought to be done, sometimes change is necessary as a result of human subjective experience and emotion.

The proper relationship between spontaneous religious emotions and the more rigid Halachic system is not always easy to negotiate. It is interesting to note that our Parsha, Parshat Shemini when read this way also gives a balanced approach to the eternal tension between an objective set of rules and the more subjective emotional realm of human beings. The Halacha provides us with a framework, and while the lesson of Yom HaShemini is that we must subjugate our emotions to serve HaKadosh Baruch Hu in the ways which He requires, we should never the less always try and garner those real, honest, individual emotions each of us carry and use them in enhancing our service of HaKadosh Baruch Hu.




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