Torah Weekly

For the week ending 22 March 2014 / 20 Adar II 5774

Parshat Shemini

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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On the eighth day of the dedication of the Mishkan, Aharon, his sons, and the entire nation bring various korbanot (offerings) as commanded by Moshe. Aharon and Moshe bless the nation. G-d allows the Jewish People to sense His Presence after they complete the Mishkan. Aharon's sons, Nadav and Avihu, innovate an offering not commanded by G-d. A fire comes from before G-d and consumes them, stressing the need to perform the commandments only as Moshe directs. Moshe consoles Aharon, who grieves in silence. Moshe directs the kohanim as to their behavior during the mourning period, and warns them that they must not drink intoxicating beverages before serving in the Mishkan. The Torah lists the two characteristics of a kosher animal: It has split hooves, and it chews, regurgitates, and re-chews its food. The Torah specifies by name those non-kosher animals which have only one of these two signs. A kosher fish has fins and easily removable scales. All birds not included in the list of forbidden families are permitted. The Torah forbids all types of insects except for four species of locusts. Details are given of the purification process after coming in contact with ritually-impure species. Bnei Yisrael are commanded to be separate and holy — like G-d.


The Prose and The Passion

“...a strange fire” (10:1)

Everything in this world is a physical parable of a spiritual reality.

Take the computer for example. The entire “miracle” of the computer is based on the numbers '1' and '0' placed in ever more complicated and elaborate sequences. If there's a '0' where there should be a '1' or vice versa, even the simplest program will just not run. It will probably send one of those delightful error messages like, "Would you like to debug now?" No thank you, I'd like to finish this article which is already late!

It's not immediately apparent but serving G-d is somewhat like a computer program.

In this week's Torah portion the joyous event of the dedication of the Mishkan (a joy that Chazal compare to the creation of Heaven and Earth) is marred by the tragic death of two of Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu.

Nadav and Avihu are consumed by fire when they enter unbidden into the sanctuary of G-d to offer incense. The Torah refers to this as a “strange fire”. “Strange” because they were not commanded to do so.

Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi in “Kuzari” explains that this fire represents their passion. They were passionate to come close to G-d, but they didn’t respect the boundaries that He had set for them.

The halacha is our boundary, and even when one has great passion to seek G-d, one must respect those boundaries. Rabbi Soleveitchik once said that if G-d had not given us explicit permission we would not even be able to pray to Him. What arrogance would it be for us to approach G-d? However, G-d not only allows, but even desires our prayers. Still, we must respect the distance that exists between us and G-d.

The desire for spirituality is often impatient with details, rules, regulations and procedures. In looking at the big picture one might feel that paying attention to the small details is just not very important and even distracting. What difference does it make if I recite “Shema” five minutes after the latest time? What is the problem if I flick a light switch on Shabbat?

Isn’t “passionate feeling” the most important element of spirituality?

The tragedy of Nadav and Avihu reminds us that wonderful as fiery passion is, when not grounded in submission to the Will of G-d, when it represents the exercise of ego instead of surrender, it cannot connect and ultimately will be destructive.

  • Sources: thanks to Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz

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