Maurice A. Salth | April 20, 2012
The book of Leviticus has the unfair, in my opinion, reputation for being boring and inaccessible. And even some of the rabbis and cantors that I know—none of them from this holy congregation—they kvetch a little bit when Leviticus is beginning closer and closer to the Torah cycle that we read annually.
But this week’s portion, Sh’mini, from the early chapters of Leviticus, has some of the Bible’s pomp and circumstance as well as drama and intrigue.
First the portion opens up with Aaron officiating at his first ever sacrificial offering. Aaron and his sons have just finished seven days of waiting for their final ordination to be complete. And on the eighth day (Sh’mini comes from the Hebrew root for the word “eight”), they are called out and Aaron is asked to officiate over this first sacrificial ritual.
And it’s not just him. Six hundred thousand, the entire Israelite community, gather around the Tent of Meeting to witness this first ever sacrifice. And the sacrifices as we know had a crucial importance. They were meant to help keep the Israelites connected to God.
And there’s a sense in the text that Aaron felt the pressure—I don’t know if you, Emily, or if you, Emily, feel some pressure, but Aaron definitely felt pressure at this moment, and he seems to step away from the spotlight. And his younger brother Moses seems to have to coax him and coach him into actually getting into these important rituals. The first one takes place with the main sacrificial animal being a calf.
Aaron finally gets into a groove and completes multiple rounds of rituals complete with acts of animals being slaughtered and smoke rising from the fire laden altar upon which the animals are placed, and at the end Aaron raises his hand and blesses the entire Israelite community. And when Aaron is finished, God’s presence fills the entire altar space and an intense fire fills the altar and takes whatever sacrifices are remaining there and they just appear in a flash.
And the text which Cantor Sacks is about to read says the Israelites scream and they shout and they fall on the ground in reverence of God. And then Aaron and Moses stand up and they give each other a high five, and they shout Hooray. I added that last part of the text.
And then there’s more. One of the most dramatic and inexplicable stories of the Torah then occurs. Just after Aaron’s successes, two of his sons, Nadab and Abihu, approach the altar and they offer with what the Torah says is eish zarah, “strange fire.” And sadly, fire comes from the altar again and strikes them and kills them.
It is a shocking episode. It happens very quickly. And for thousands of years commentators have tried to figure out what happened, and why the act of their killing occurred.
It remains one of the Torah’s greatest mysteries. Rabbi Larry Hoffman, one of our finest modern-day teachers, views these two events as very much connected.
He says Aaron was hesitant because this act of these first sacrifices reminded him of being in front of all the Israelites at Mount Sinai when the calf was not a live calf, but a golden calf. And that he was still traumatized from that incident and couldn’t go forward until Moses said “I will supervise, I’ll be watching you.” And then he finally steps forward to complete this act.
And on the other end of the spectrum, Nadab and Abihu, well it’s not clear why they acted so quickly right after Aaron’s sacrifices. And Rabbi Hoffman, he translates their behavior as arrogant and misusing their position as priests, for they too were just ordained as priests, for their own purpose and not for the people’s.
From all this, Rabbi Hoffman teaches that we can each learn from this parable within Sh’mini. He says each of us leads, each of us is making decisions every day. And we must find a way to kind of walk that fine line that helps us make decisions from our past experience, our past behaviors, some of which have been error-filled, others which have been successes.
And we must also make sure that we’re not making our decisions out of our zeal for success or personal ego-gratification. Somehow we must find this way to push away the paralysis we might feel, as well as keeping our personal desires at bay.
And Rabbi Hoffman’s closing teaching on Sh’mini is this: he says risking mistakes with proper moral intentions is what God’s work is all about.
And I agree. Risking mistakes with proper moral intention is what our work and what God’s work should be all about.
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