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Parashat Shemini 5779 — 03/30/2019

Parashat Shemini 5779 — 03/30/2019

Vayikra 9:1-11:47

And Aharon was silent. (10:4)

On what was supposed to be the greatest and happiest day of his life, the day he assumed the role of Kohen Gadol / High Priest, his two eldest sons approached Gd with “strange fire” (i.e. an unauthorized offering of incense) and were consumed by a “fire from before Hashem,” the same way that the offerings were consumed. We have in prior years tried to plumb what the sin of Nadav and Avihu was, and there are as many answers as there are commentators. Rabbi Goldin also has a section on this, but he has another section that probes Aharon’s response to the tragedy. The Torah, in its usual terse way, just says: And Moshe said to Aharon: Of this did Gd speak when He said, “I will be sanctified among those who are nearest to me, and before the entire nation I shall be glorified.”  And Aharon was silent. (10:3-4)

What was Moshe saying to Aharon, and why did Aharon seem to be mollified by what was said to him? And where do we find Gd saying that He would be “sanctified among those who are nearest to me,” and why do we interpret this as implying the death of some great people, as if Gd wanted to consecrate the Mishkan with a human sacrifice?

The “standard” Midrashic interpretation, quoted by Rashi, derives the earlier statement of Gd’s from Shemot 29:43: … and I will be sanctified in My Glory.  Moshe is held to have understood this phrase to mean “by those who glorify Me.” Then, somehow, there is a jump to interpreting this latter phrase as meaning that Gd would be sanctified by the death of some individuals who are “closest to Gd.” He then tells Aharon that he had thought they (Moshe and Aharon) would be singled out as “closest to Gd,” but in fact now he recognizes that Nadav and Avihu were greater than their father and uncle. This, Moshe hoped, would soothe his brother’s pain as he contemplated their sublime level of spiritual achievement.

Picking up on this explanation, the question becomes: How does the death of the righteous sanctify Gd’s Name? I have seen some comment that when the people see that a great person is punished for even a slight infraction, they reason that how much more should they correct their ways. Besides my discomfort with the whole emphasis on Gd’s continual punishment, I don’t think the inference is correct. Our Sages tell us that the more righteous the person, the more strictly (s)he is judged. A righteous person’s thoughts are more powerful, because they come from a deeper level of consciousness. Therefore, if they deviate from Gd’s Will, that deviation can lead to very serious consequences, and therefore it must be corrected. The rest of us, whose thoughts and actions are much less powerful, can deviate more and not cause as much harm. Furthermore, if one sees the great ones of the generation dying for small things, it certainly puts a damper on one’s own quest for greatness! But this is from my own limited perspective.

Far greater scholars than I also have problems with this explanation however. R. Goldin quotes Rashbam (Rashi’s grandson, R. Shmuel ben Meir, 1085-1158) as objecting:

The aggadic explanation that Moshe consoled Aharon by pointing to a divine prediction that Gd would be sanctified through [the sacrifice] of those who glorify him … is not an acceptable interpretation of the text. [Could we possibly believe that] Gd would announce to Moshe: Create for me a Mishkan and on that very day the greatest among you will die?

Rather, R. Goldin goes on to say, Rashbam interprets Moshe’s words as a challenge to his brother. Jewish law requires that personal mourning give way before public celebrations – for example, the Festivals (public) cancel the requirement to sit shiva for a relative. Aharon, as Kohen Gadol, is instructed that his private mourning must give way to the public celebration of the dedication of the Mishkan. Rashbam reads the Midrash this way: By scrupulously following the halachah and refraining from mourning, it is Aharon, not his sons, who would be sanctifying Gd’s Name. Gd’s Name is sanctified when His Will is done, and doubly so when someone prominent bends his will and his ego to Gd’s Will – the more difficult the bending, the greater the sanctification.

How do we align our will with Gd’s Will? Gd’s Will proceeds from His transcendental essence, which is pure silence, beyond all objects, all space and time, beyond all activity. If we allow our mind to settle down and experience the deep silence within, the least excited state of our awareness, we automatically begin to attune ourselves with Gd’s Will. We transcend our thoughts, our intellect, our ego – all the individual aspects of our personality, and become identified with our universal Self. When we think or feel or act from this level of silence, we are thinking or feeling or acting from the level of Gd’s Will. Perhaps from this angle, when Torah tells us that “Aharon was silent,” it is giving us a model of an ideal state of life – one in which silence is lived in conjunction with our activity, guiding and supporting our activity and making sure we do not deviate from Gd’s Will.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Shemini

Shemini means “eighth.”  In this parshah, 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 appear 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 and as they experience it becomes available to all the people.

Leviticus, 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” (translation,

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 Lrd; 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 unknowable-ness of Gd. Torah says this was 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.

Consistent with this interpretation of Gd beyond understanding is the description in this parshah of dietary laws, particularly what animals, birds, fish, insects are clean and which are not to be eaten.

Discussion I have seen on this indicates that the reasons for the categorizing are not understandable simply from a human zoological view but they are known only to Gd and we must have faith in them and thus to be holy as Gd is Holy.  So it is up to us to live pure lives, to serve as High Priests within the Temple that is our own body and personality, and to offer our lives to Gd, Totality beyond words to describe or understand, and to enjoy the unfoldment of Gd’s glory within us and around us, everywhere. Everywhere. For everyone.

Baruch HaShem