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Parashat Shemini 5778 — 04/14/2018

Parashat Shemini 5778 — 04/14/2018

Vayikra 9:1-11:47

Fire plays a prominent role in this week’s parashah. It is a sign that Gd has accepted Aharon’s service, as it says:

And a fire went forth from before Hashem and consumed the burnt offering and the fats upon the Altar; all the people saw, sang praises, and
fell upon their faces. (9:24)

It also plays a major role in the tragic deaths of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, and the Torah uses the same language a mere two verses later to describe what happens:

A fire went forth from before Hashem and consumed them, and they died before Hashem. (10:2)

The sin of Nadav and Avihu, as described in verse 10:1 was that they brought alien fire before Hashem. So fire is the beginning of Nadav and Avihu’s saga, and unfortunately it is the end as well. They were burned the same way that the offerings were burned – by a Divine fire.

This Divine fire occurs in a number of other places in Torah. At the beginning of Moshe Rabbeinu’s mission Gd appears to him as a fire burning in a thorn bush, but which did not consume the bush. Perhaps the “fire” in this case was a numinous, celestial glow – Moshe was granted a glimpse into the finest levels of creation and perceived it as glowing. And at the end of the mission, in the song of HaAzinu, Moshe describes Torah itself as eshdat, “a fiery Torah.” Most of us don’t see the Torah as fire, but most of us don’t have Moshe Rabbeinu’s level of perception.

When the people did rise to this level of perception, they perceived Gd as going before the camp in a pillar of fire (at night) that “lit up the way before them.” And at the Revelation, Gd came down on the earth in a dark cloud with thunder and lightning and fire.

Abarbanel brings a number of other instances where the Divine, celestial realm is perceived as fiery: I saw … flaming fire with a brightness around it, and from its midst … in the midst of the fire (Yechezkel 1:4); His throne was of fiery flames, its wheels blazing fire … A stream of fire was blazing forth from before Him. (Daniel 7:9-10). In addition, in one of Isaiah’s visions, his “impure lips” are purified by touching them with a glowing coal from the fire in his vision. So fire has a purifying effect as well. The Zohar tells us that the real, celestial Torah is written with black fire on white fire. Lastly, the first thing that Gd created was light, according to the interpretation that Bereishit bara Elokim (the first words of Torah) mean “When Gd began to create.”

Abarbanel comments:

Since Gd’s ‘appearances’ are prepared with fire, fire was also present in the Tabernacle and the Temples to symbolize that the Divine Presence, the glory of Gd, and His myriad “holy, heavenly hosts” were present. This is why the people bowed down to the fire: because it represented the Divine Presence.

In line with our attempt to go beyond mere symbolism in the Temple ritual, let’s see if fire has a deeper reality to it than merely a symbol. Let’s start with some Physics.  Modern physics, specifically Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, has shown that space-time, rather than just being the stage upon which all the activity of nature plays out, is a dynamic participant in the activity of nature. At some time, several billion years ago, space-time and its contents appeared, compressed into an unimaginably small radius. All the matter and energy in the universe was in the form of radiant energy at an extremely elevated temperature. The first act of creation evidently was, “Let there be light.”

We can look at this from another angle entirely. We have discussed on a number of occasions that all of creation is a complex mode of vibration of a single, unified field.  Although on the surface we see concrete objects, we know that those objects are made of molecules, atoms, subatomic particles. Those elementary particles are nothing other than vibrations of this unified field, and the interactions between particles are simply different vibrations of the same field. Everything is the unified field expressing itself as vibrations, in the same way that the ocean expresses itself as waves. The waves are not different from the ocean; they are just an active value of the ocean. In the same way, on the subtlest level all of creation is just vibration, which in some traditions is described as a glow, or a fire.

So, in analogy to the physics, we find the Divine fire at the beginning of creation, and we find Divine fire at the subtlest level of creation as an ongoing reality. Since our Tradition tells us that every man, woman and child was able to perceive at this level at Mt. Sinai and at the splitting of the sea, even if only temporarily, it is obviously within human capability to have this level of perception. My belief is that the Temple ritual was
designed to raise the consciousness of everyone who participated in it, and that the Divine Fire that “came down” onto the Altar was in fact a result of the Temple ritual; the details of the connection may have to wait for the establishment of the Third Temple to be elucidated.

Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Shemini

Shemini means “eight”. In this parashah, we learn that Aaron completed his seven days after being initiated by Gd through Moses as High Priest of Israel; on the eighth, he performed his first service as High Priest:

“…And the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people.” Leviticus 9:23 (

Aaron made his own offerings (“korbanot”, drawing near) and also those of the people in the correct way and the glory of the Lrd appeared to all the people.  This is the world we want today and always, a world in which all leaders and all people all included, none left out – are properly prepared to draw near and to experience the glory of Gd.

Leviticus Chapter 9
24 And fire went forth from before the Lrd and consumed the burnt offering and the fats upon the altar, and all the people saw, sang praises, and fell upon their faces.
כד ותֵַּ֤צֵא אֵשׁ֙ מִלִּפְנֵ֣י יהְוֹ֔הָ ותַּ֨אֹכַל֙ עַל־
הַמִּזבְֵּ֔חַ אֶת־הָֽעלָֹ֖ה ואְֶת־הַֽחֲלָבִ֑ים ויַַּ֤רְא כָּל־הָעָם֙ ויַּרָ֔נֹּוּ ויַּ פְִּל֖וּ עַל־פְּניֵהֶםֽ

The symbolism of “eight”, as presents it, appeals to me: eight symbolizes Gd beyond the seven days of creation [if we include the seventh day of “rest”] and, therefore, knowable only by Gd, beyond comprehension by the creation. On the eighth day, we would have Gd as Kaddish says about Gd: above and beyond any praise or blessing we can utter in the world. On this day, Aaron is fulfilled and he and all the Children of Israel see the Glory of the Lord; also on this day, two of Aaron’s sons are consumed by the same Fire of Gd that consumed the offerings of Aaron and the people. Both events occur on the same day, indicating the unknowableness of Gd.

Torah says the sons’ deaths were because they offered “strange fire” which Gd had not commanded; some rabbis say it was because they were drunk; other rabbis say it was because they were great and Gd sanctified the Tabernacle through them. We have diverse views, consistent with the symbolism of eight as Gd being beyond description or human understanding.