D'var: Shemini

They needed someone to give the d’var Torah this week, and because Shemini has involves the laws of kashrut, I was tagged as a likely victi… I mean volunteer. Here is what I presented:

So here’s a brief summary of the portion:

Aaron and his sons complete the lecture part of their “Priesthood 101” course, and move on to start their lab work. Everything is going great: they’re slaughtering, splatting, smearing, burning and having a great time. Aaron comes out of the Mishkan, blesses the people, and God makes like a 4th of July show and consumes the burnt offering in a huge burst of fire. Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu rush forward, burn a little of their own “special blend” incense and WHOOSH, we’ve got crispy-friend kohain.

Moses says “You know, God did mention that something like this could happen if you aren’t careful.”

And then we get the rules about keeping kosher.

I found this all to be deeply and personally disturbing given the fact that, for the last few weeks, my family has been in the process of taking on the mitzvah of kashrut.

Reading the story of Nadab and Abihu (or as I like to refer to them, Aaron’s Amazing Exploding Children) added just the right element of irrational panic to the already smoldering mix of confusion, apprehension, angst and frustration.

As I prepared the drash this week – during which time I accidentally treifed 3 plates, 5 forks, 2 mixing bowls and a half the sofa (don’t ask) – Debbie tried to calm my fractured nerves by saying “So you made a mistake. Its’ not that big a deal. What’s the worst that will happen?”



I thought it might be important to my ongoing good health to figure out what went wrong.

The episode with Nadab and Abihu is troubling. It appears we have a God who acts rashly, even vindictively, and for no discernible reason. But we need to look at all the evidence before jumping to conclusions. We need to follow protocol. We need to delve into the forensics.

We need: “Crime Scene Investigation: Shemini”

Our primary suspect is Hashem. We have multiple eyewitness accounts that place the suspect at the scene of the crime. Our main task therefore is to establish a motive. Since the suspect has been historically unresponsive to direct questioning since the time of the Prophets, not to mention the fact that I’m pushing my luck with all the God jokes so far, I am content to use the evidence we have at hand to derive some conclusions.

Possible motives would include:

  • God requires perfection
  • God is random and vindictive
  • Nadav and Abihu purposely engineered their own death
  • Nadav and Abihu did something extremely horrible, the consequence of which was death

To the first point, that God requires perfection, I think it’s safe to say that given the fact that I’m still standing here, God doesn’t even require reverence, let alone perfection. Really, I think there is a huge body of evidence to support the fact that God likes it when we try our best, but achieving perfection is reserved for… well, God.

Could God be random and vindictive? While it is conceivably possible, again I think all information we have points elsewhere. God’s motives may be incomprehensible – I mean, I can’t imagine the problem with wearing linen and wool together. Of course, I also don’t see the problem with wearing beige and gray together, or white after Labor day – but I don’t believe any of our texts or commentators point to a deity who acts on whimsy. The Creator of all things, who set the planets in motion and the laws of physics which we are still discovering with large hadron colliders is nothing if not mindful of details.

Did Nadav and Abihu set the stage for their own extravagant end? I’ll come back to that.

Which leaves us (at least for the moment) with the idea that Nadav and Abihu did something extremely horrible, the consequence of which was death.

At this point, I want to bring in additional evidence for comparison. This time, the potential victim is King David. I chose him for two reasons:

  1. he’s mentioned in today’s haftarah reading
  2. it’s gives me a chance to sing part of a pop song

King David did a lot of cool stuff, from cleaning Goliath’s clock to the way he rocked out on the harp. But he wasn’t exactly a perfect angel.

First, he wasn’t exactly a sensitive husband. In today’s Haftarah we read how David reveled before the Ark of God as it entered the City of David, dancing with all his might. But his wife took a different view. In the privacy of their home, she rebukes him and the sarcasm fairly drips off the page:

“Didn’t the king of Israel do himself honor today — exposing himself today in the sight of the slavegirls of his subjects, as one of the riffraff might expose himself!”

David is unrepentant, and his response is both defensive and punitive:

“It was before the Lord who chose me instead of your father and all his family and appointed me ruler over the Lord’s people Israel! I will dance before the Lord and dishonor myself even more, and be low in my own esteem; but among the slavegirls that you speak of I will be honored.” So to her dying day Michal daughter of Saul had no children.

This eventually led to another low point in David’s ethical narrative: Bathsheba. For those unfamiliar with the tawdry details, it goes like this: Boy marries girl, King wants girl, King sends Boy to certain death in war, Boy kicks bucket, King marries girl.

What does this all have to do with Nadav and Abihu? David the wild child never got the barbecue treatment. He gets the chance to repent over and over again. You get the feeling that God really likes David, sees the best in him. In the words of Leonard Cohen:

“Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord”

Why? What did David have that Nadav and Abihu didn’t? Was the Priestly Pair missing any redeeming qualities to stay the wrath of God? Was there nothing foretold in the rest of their life that was worth keeping them around?

The key piece, I believe, is in the intent. And that by the way is what I think keeps me safe as I stumble through the maze of kashrut.

David never intended to offend or mock God. As he found himself driven by earthy passions he wasn’t thumbing his nose at Hashem or Halacha. Even as he danced and twirled, he wasn’t mooning God so the crowd could have a good laugh (for the record, I’m not either). He was being the best David he could be. And the sad truth is that sometimes our best falls short of THE best. We just gotta keep plugging away, improving where we can, repenting when we fail.

So it seems “what we’ve got here is a failure to elevate“. Nadav and Abihu, against everything they had been taught and for the express purpose of making a spectacle before B’nai Yisrael possibly pop a few brewskies, bring out strange fire and try to whoop it up. God’s response is swift, clear, decisive and unmistakable: “Don’t Poke the Bear”.

If you are uncomfortable (as I am) with the implication that because Nadav and Abihu were killed, they must have been wrong, I offer you an alternate view.

First, while it is fun to flex all sorts of intellectual muscles leaping from assumption to assumption, the p’shat is there for a reason. God said, in this specific situation, to do things EXACTLY so. Doing otherwise carried dire consequences not because of intent, but because that is the way the world works. Unlike Bugs Bunny, no matter whether you study law or no when you step off a cliff the direction you go is “down”.

Second, a student of mine, who had Shemini as her Bat Mitzvah portion, offered me the view that Nadav and Abihu wanted to die. Or at least, they wanted something which they knew would result in their death. In a case of modern midrash, my student envisioned the boys as inspired by their teacher Moses and his obvious love for Hashem. They saw his glowing face and heard the story of how close God and Moses had come. They wanted that love for themselves. Receiving the standard response, that nobody can see God’s face and live, the Aaron’s sons chose love over longevity.

In the end, whatever analysis you choose, the son’s deaths are no less tragic, and their father’s silence no more comforting.

Shabbat Shalom