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Parashat Shemini 5775 — 04/15/2015

Parashat Shemini 5775 — 04/15/2015

Our parashah contains the famous incident in which Aharon’s two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring “alien fire” to burn incense before Gd, and “fire came out from before Hashem and consumed them, and they died before Hashem.”  But what, exactly, did they do to deserve such a severe punishment?  These were, after all, people on the highest level of spirituality, and they were trying to move even higher?  What is wrong with that?  The commentators struggle to answer this question.  I’d like to discuss Rav Kook’s explanation, and I would also like to bring another idea that has some immediate personal relevance for my experience of the past three months (December-February).

The Kabbalists explained that Nadav and Avihu erred by separating the spiritual realm of binah (insight) from the higher realm of chochmah (wisdom).  [RAR: These are the two highest sephirot or emanations of Gd.] …

Chochmah is the very essence of holiness.  It is pure awareness, a flash of intuitive understanding.  This lofty perception contains the splendor of sublime ideals at their highest level, before they are applied to the detailed characteristics of reality. …

Below chochmah lies the spiritual realm of binah.  Binah is an elaboration and extension of chochmah.  This realm is created when the light of chochmah is ready to realize the ideals that govern finite content, enabling the formation of worlds and souls.  Binah reflects reality in its most idealized form.  It corresponds to the sublime purpose of creation and the culmination of life.

Nadav and Avihu erred by pursuing the spiritual joys of prophecy and inspiration [RAR: i.e. binah] in a form detached from Torah [RAR: i.e. chochmah] and its practical teachings. … They tried to attain closeness to the Holy on their own initiative … Nadav and Avihu concentrated their efforts on their own spiritual attainments, without integrating the discipline of Torah.  They were highly aware of their own spiritual greatness, but personal holiness must be negated before the higher light of Torah.

I think that what Rav Kook is describing is the transition between the infinite, unbounded source of creation, and the very first sprouting of that creation.  Chochmah is pure awareness, which our tradition identifies with Torah: When He wanted to create, Gd looked into Torah.  Therefore Torah, which preceded creation, must be on a level that is transcendental to creation.  Binah, on the other hand, is the first manifestation of chochmah.  It appears when chochmah is ready to express itself into creation.  The way I understand what Rav Kook is saying, binah too is infinite, only it has some slight quality of finitude to it.  Chochmah has undergone some kind of virtual transformation, which in no way negates its status as infinite and unbounded, but which prepares it to rise in waves, which, while remaining nothing other than ocean water, nevertheless have some individuality and boundedness on their surface.

What does it mean then, “to separate chochmah from binah“?  Almost all of us are focused on the very surface level of creation – the level of inert, physical matter.  This level appears to us to be as far away from the Divine center as possible, and in fact, it forms a kind of crust that hides the center almost completely, much as the surface (crust) of the earth hides its core and mantle.  Nadav and Avihu, of course, were on a much higher level.  Nevertheless, even if their focus was not on the trivialities of the surface level, it got stuck on the finest level of manifestation.  This level may be a level of bliss and light that is unimaginable to us, but it is not the ultimate.  There is still this small tinge of individuality.  By approaching the ultimate, Divine level of chochmah with this tinge of individuality (“strange fire”), they set themselves for an encounter with the infinite that they were not prepared to sustain.  Their finite bodies, unprotected by the boundaries that Torah mandates for one to make such an approach, could not withstand the outpouring of the infinite, and they perished.

I think the lesson for us is not that we should not approach the infinite, but that we must recognize that there is a way to approach the infinite – and that is on its own terms, as defined in Torah, not on our own.  We pray every day in Sh’ma koleinu (in the amidah): “… and please our King, do not send us away empty-handed.”  This prayer is always answered.  If we approach Gd full of ourselves, Gd will figure we’re OK and send us away, still full of ourselves.  If we humble ourselves, and approach Gd empty of our baggage, of our preconceptions, of our agendas, and innocently ask Gd to guide us and give us strength to do His Will, then our approach will be accepted, and we will be filled with Gd’s light.

I would like to use this theme of humility to segue into another aspect of the story of Nadav and Avihu.  One of the “sins” attributed to Nadav and Avihu was impatience.  The Rabbis have them wondering when Moshe Rabbeinu and their father Aharon would pass the mantle of leadership to them.  It is impossible to believe that such a sentiment could be motivated by crude jealousy – Nadav and Avihu were on too high a level for that.  However, it is possible to imagine that, knowing they were Moshe and Aharon’s designated successors, that some tiny bit of impatience crept into their consciousness.

There are other examples of the disastrous effects of impatience.  For example, our Sages tell us that Adam and Eve were actually supposed to eat of both the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Life.  They were supposed to live forever, with complete knowledge of creation, almost on the level of Gd.  However, they had to wait until Shabbat, just a few hours after their initial appearance on earth.  Apparently the holiness of Shabbat was required to allow the experience of the Tree of Knowledge to be integrated into Adam and Eve’s character without damaging them.  Unfortunately, they got impatient and ate a little before that first Shabbat began.  (Incidentally, when a woman lights Shabbat lights, she brings in the Shabbat and partially rectifies Eve’s sin.)

Another example: When we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, the prophecy that we would be “strangers in a land not [ours] for 400 years” was well-known.  The question is, from what point did the clock start?  In retrospect, the clock started with the birth of Yitzchak, 30 years after the prophecy, as before that Avraham had no seed by which his legacy would be propagated (Yishmael was excluded because of his mother, and because of his own nature), and the prophecy said specifically “Your seed will be strangers.”  Some, however, sought to count the 400 years from the time of the prophecy itself.  Our Sages tell us that some 30,000 Israelites escaped Egypt and attempted to enter the Land, via the way of the Philistines.  But they were wrong – and the Philistines slaughtered them.

As some of you may be aware, I recently lost my life partner to chronic-progressive multiple sclerosis.  We had been together for 26 years, but the first 10 of those years I had to spend at quite some distance from where she lived.  During this time her condition progressed, and she became bedridden; it then became necessary for me to move back to her town to be able to give her full-time care.  After her death, I came across some journals she had kept (while she could still write), and I became acutely aware of the fear and heartache she went through, and what she had to do to accommodate her deteriorating condition and loss of function.  Had I had any inkling that it was as bad as it was, I would have rushed back to her, but I would not have had the maturity, nor the resources (physical, financial or psychological) to deal with the situation.  It would have made a bad situation worse, not better.  Fortunately, she never told me any of this, and it was only when she was safely ensconced in the next world that I came across the journals.  In fact, reflecting on the various threads of our lives and the lives of those around us, I was struck at how perfectly they were woven together, and with what impeccable timing, to produce the positive results of our relationship.  Of course, at my level, Gd had to enforce my patience, because I’m not by nature a very patient person – ask my former students!

Patience is based on faith and humility.  It is not synonymous with passivity.  One needs to act in the world, one needs to plan for the future, one needs to discern what is required to be done at every moment and do it.  But we must recognize that our perception and our intellect are limited, and we simply do not have the capacity to take every influence into account that goes into the success of our actions.  Gd, of course does.  Our faith is not that everything will work out the way we want, or even that the process will be painless.  Sometimes growth requires stretching, and often the inertia of our physical bodies makes us unwilling to make that stretch.  But we do have to have faith that Gd is managing the universe in such a way as to benefit all of creation.  And we have to have the humility to wait patiently for Gd’s plan to work itself out, in the fullness of time.

Pirke Avot, Chapter 1

With Passover completed last week, we again enter the summer season, where we study one of the 6 chapters of the tractate Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, each Shabbat after minchah.  Towards Rosh haShanah we’ll run short by a few weeks and we’ll double up.  I think that over the past several years I’ve written on almost all the mishnayot of each chapter, so this year there will probably be some duplication, but hopefully new points will emerge from every one.  There are dozens, if not hundreds, of commentaries on Pirke Avot; try any online Jewish bookstore (e.g.,, etc.) and find something you’d enjoy reading on Shabbat afternoons – you won’t regret it!

Mishnah 1

Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Yehoshua, and Yehoshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly…

This opening tracing of the route of tradition establishes a vital principle in Jewish ethics.  There is room for each person to branch out in a unique fashion, but it must be within the framework of the revealed objective values (R. Reuven Bulka)

A trend I find disturbing in Jewish life is increasing regimentation and rigidity.  It seems that the demands to be accepted, at least in the Orthodox world, have more and more come to be rigid adherence to a specific manner of dress, speech and behavior, with little room for individual expression.  One sees pictures of large groups of chareidim and it looks like a huge, black army, with everyone in uniform, marching in lockstep.  Admittedly, I am on the outside looking in, but what I see is disturbing.  There is also a growing intolerance between various groups, not to mention between Orthodox and the “liberal” streams; this has been decried by many, including within the Orthodox camp.

Rav Bulka brings out the essential tension between this kind of rigidity and individuality.  We have an objective standard given to us by Gd, and a received tradition of interpretation and elaboration, all of which govern virtually every aspect of an observant Jew’s life.  However this is a framework, not a vise.  It gives us ample room to express our individuality, but within the boundaries of appropriate behavior.  In our times, when it seems that all boundaries of decency and modesty have been shunted aside in a lascivious free-for-all, it is perhaps understandable that those who want to protect the purity of their own lives and families become more rigidly adherent to their framework, but this leads to as much of a distortion of Torah, in my opinion, as ditching it altogether.

There is a mitzvah for every Jewish man to write a copy of the Torah for himself.  This of course has its plain meaning – one copies an existing, accurate Torah scroll to make his own personal copy (there are easier, and cheaper[!] ways of fulfilling this mitzvah by the way).  I think on a deeper level, the way we live our lives is the Torah we write.  And since each of us is unique, that Torah will be unique.  As the Sages express it: See how different the Holy One, Blessed is He, from flesh and blood.  A king mints currency using a single mold, and every coin looks the same.  The Holy One, Blessed be He, creates all people from the same mold, yet each one is unique.  Heaven help us if we forget that!