TORAH SPARKS: Parashat Shmini

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Parshat Shmini April 18, 2020 | 24 Nisan 5780

Annual | Leviticus 9:1-11:47 (Etz Hayim p.630; Hertz p. 443)

Triennial | Leviticus 10:12-11:32 (Etz Hayim p. 635; Hertz p. 450)

Haftarah | II Samuel 6:1-7:17: Etz Hayim p .645; Hertz p. 454)


Life in a Capricious World

Rabbi Joel Levy, Rosh Yeshiva, Conservative Yeshiva

The ceremonial ordination ceremony for the priesthood appeared to go very well and the new tabernacle seemed to be in working order. At the close of the ceremony Moses and Aaron blessed the people and divine fire consumed only the correct parts of the sacrifices (Vayikra Chapter 9):

23. And Moses and Aaron went into the Meeting Tent, and came out, and blessed the people; and the glory of Adonai appeared to all the people. 24. And a fire came out from before Adonai, and ate upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat; and all the people saw and they shouted, and they fell on their faces.

And then, immediately, disaster struck in Chapter 10:

1. And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, each of them took his censer (a tray for burning incense) and put fire in them, and put incense on it, and offered strange fire before Adonai, which he had not commanded them. 2. And a fire went out from Adonai, and ate them, and they died before Adonai.

Now that was not supposed to happen! The divine fire that a moment ago had seemed benign, is now revealed to be lethal. Worse even than the danger, is the lack of a clear warning. Nadav and Avihu appear to be acting in good faith. How is it possible to live alongside a God who may, at a moment’s notice, strike out and consume those in presence? Would it be possible to be in a covenantal relationship with such a God?

The Midrash makes repeated attempts to understand what was wrong with Nadav and Avihu’s behavior? The attempt to understand this event is crucial; lack of mutual comprehension makes it difficult to maintain a relationship with God. These midrashic efforts take the rabbis in different directions, but I’d like to focus on just one. Later, in Ch. 10 verses 8-10 Aaron is warned never to drink alcohol while in the Mishkan:

8. And Adonai spoke to Aaron, saying, 9. "Do not drink wine or strong drink, you, or your sons with you, when you go into the Tent of Meeting, in case you die; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations; 10. And that you may distinguish between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean.

On this Vayikra Rabbah (Shmini 12) expounds as follows:

“wine… yafrish (stings or maybe spits)... like a viper.” (Proverbs 23:32) Just as a viper mafrish (divides) between life and death, so wine hifrish (made a division) between Aaron and his sons by causing death. As R. Shimon taught: The sons of Aaron only died because they entered the Tent of Meeting drunk with wine. R. Pinchas said in the name of R. Levi: this may be compared to the case of a king who had a faithful attendant. When he found him standing at tavern entrances he severed his head in silence (i.e. without explaining his reason) and appointed another attendant in his place. We would not know why he put the first to death, but for his teaching the second thus: ‘You must not enter the doorway of taverns’; from here we know that for such a reason he had put the first one to death. Thus [it is said] “And fire came out from before Adonai, and ate them, and they died before the Lord (Vayikra 10:2) but we would not know why they [i.e. Nadav and Avihu] died but for His commanding Aaron “Drink no wine or strong drink” (Vayikra 10:9) We know from this that they died precisely on account of the wine.

The author of this midrash can now breathe a sigh of relief. He understands a little better the apparent capriciousness of God’s mind. Wine blurs and the Mishkan requires clear headedness and precision; each sacrifice in the right place. The parasha ends with long lists of culinary laws and states that holiness comes when we, with clarity:

(11:47) …distinguish between the unclean and the clean, between the living things that may be eaten and the living things that may not be eaten.

Does that ring true for you? Are you drawn to a type of sober spirituality which involves shaping and maintaining distinctions and boundaries? Is the right way to avoid danger in our lives by staying as cold sober as possible?


D’var Haftarah: Interior and Exterior Qualities Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

The big story in this week’s Haftarah involves King David’s desire to bring the Aron Kodesh – the Holy Ark – to Jerusalem in order to establish the city not only as the political capital of the country but also as its religious center. This event had its moments of great tragedy along with moments of over-abiding religious joy and ecstasy. David, himself, was caught up in both: “And David was whirling before the Lord with all of his might.” (6:14) When they reached the city of David, “Michal daughter of Saul looked out through the window, saw King David leaping and whirling before the Lord, and she scorned him in her heart.” (6:16) Later when she confronted him in person, she poured forth her bile: “How honored (mah nikhbad) today is the king of Israel who has exposed himself today to the eyes of his servants’ slave girls as some scurrilous fellow would expose himself.” (6:20) And David responded in kind: “I will play before the Lord! And I will be dishonored still more than this and I will be debased in my own eyes! But with the slave girls about whom you spoke, with them let me be honored (ikaveida)!” (6:22)

Embedded in this contentious dispute between David and his wife, Michal, are the seeds of a serious debate over the nature of “kavod” – honor. Both David and Michal use the word “kavod” in their heated argument, each with a different sense of what it means. For Michal, honor is a matter of outward appearance and behavior. She expects David to behave in a dignified fashion suitable for a king. David, in contrast, saw honor in one’s total devotion to his faith. Honor is not be found in one’s search for status; rather in one’s greater sense of purpose. (Shimon Bar-Efrat, 2 Samuel, Mikra L’Yisrael, p. 64)

It is unsurprising that this debate is reflected as an angry dispute. What exactly is honor? Is it reflected in outer trappings or is it inner dedication that counts? Was Michal right or was David, right?

The sages coined an idiom: tokho k’boro, literally, that a person’s inner qualities should be reflected in their outward trappings, meaning that one’s ideals and values should be reflected in how one acts. (See Tanhuma Vayakhel 7). In true rabbinic fashion, this would appear to imply that a middle ground is suggested. One should seek both ideals and the outward honor which reflects those ideals.


Parashah Study: Is a Calf Just a Calf?

Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

On the eighth day, after months of building and seven days of preparations, it was time for the inauguration ceremony that would put the Mishkan into use and turn Aaron and his sons into Kohanim. Every detail of such a day is loaded with meaning.

Text: Vayikra 9:1-4

(1) And it happened on the eighth day that Moshe called to Aaron and to his sons and to the elders of Israel. (2) And he said to Aaron, “Take for you a calf… as an offense offering, and a ram as a burnt offering…and bring them forward before the LORD. (3) And to the Israelites you shall speak saying, ‘Take a he-goat as an offense offering and a… calf and a lamb as a burnt offering… (4)…for today the LORD will appear before you’.

  • Several people are called by Moshe to be there at the inauguration of the Mishkan. Why are these people chosen?
  • Notice Aaron’s offering as he is about to become the Kohen Gadol. What does he bring? What association might arise from this offering? What do you think was the message of being told to bring such an offering?
  • Now look at the offerings brought by the people. What do you think was the message in their offerings

Commentary: Midrash Tanhuma Shmini 4:1

And he said to Aaron take for you a calf – Why did he not tell him to take a bull [the standard animal for such an offering] but rather a calf? ‘Since by the calf the Kehuna (priesthood) became shaky for you, so by the calf it will become well established for you.’ And not only that, but so that Israel will not say ‘they [still] have sins from the deed of the calf, therefore the Holy One Blessed be He said to him: They too shall offer a calf… so all will know that the deed of the calf has been atoned for.

  • What calf from the past had the potential of undoing Aaron becoming Kohen Gadol? (Shmot 32 can help.) Why? Who might be questioning the legitimacy of appointing Aaron as Kohen Gadol?
  • How will bringing a calf, rather than the usual bull, establish Aaron’s position considering that past event? What is the logic in the Midrash’s thinking?
  • What fears linger among the people because of the ‘deed of the calf’ according to the midrash? Why would these fears come to the forefront at this moment of inaugurating the Mishkan?
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