Friday, April 20, 2007

Shemini (Rashi)

For more teachings on this parsha, see the archives of this blog, below, April 2006.

“And fire came down…”

This week’s parasha is one of the most perplexing in the entire Torah. Particularly puzzling is the incident of the sudden death of Nadav and Avihu, two of Aaron’s sons, at the very peak of the celebration of the erection of the Tabernacle in the desert when they offered “strange fire that God had not commanded them.” The difficulty lies, (1), in understanding the reason for their deaths: Was it punishment, and if so, for what sin? Or was it something else: a kind of gratuitous death somehow related to their very closeness to God? (2) What is the meaning of the enigmatic phrase בקרובי אקדש (“by those that are close to Me I shall be sanctified”; Lev 10:3); (3) There is something arbitrary, even seemingly immoral, if one can say such a thing, in God’s behavior here. What kind of a God is He, anyway? (The haftarah, from 2 Samuel 6, raises a similar question with regard to the story of Uzza, the hapless ox-driver who was killed while trying to steady the ark of the covenant.)

I have discussed all these issues in the past (see HY I, II, III: Shemini) and cannot elaborate upon them here. I would like to point out an interesting linguistic twist that I noticed for the first time this year. In verse 9:24 we read:

“And fire went forth before the Lord, and consumed upon the altar the burnt-offering and the fats; and all the people saw and shouted in joy, and they fell on their faces.”

Almost immediately thereafter, in 10:2, we read

“And fire went forth before the Lord, and consumed them [i.e., Nadav and Avihu], and they died before the Lord.”

We have here two verses of strikingly different connotation: one describing the acceptance of Aaron’s inaugural offerings at the Sanctuary, as signified by fire from heaven consuming the meat on the altar; the second describing the sudden death of the two priestly scions by fire which, according to one midrash quoted by Rashi at 10:5, consumed their souls but left their bodies and their garments intact. The striking thing is that the first five words of these verses is identical (indeed, the editors of one popular edition of Mikra’ot Gedolot mistakenly thought the Rashi to 10:2 in fact belonged to 9:24, causing them to omit the verse number—the fact that alerted me to this anomaly in the first place). These echoes cannot but strike a chord in the sensitive reader. Indeed, the Bible frequently uses the repetition of key words and phrases to call the reader’s or listener’s attention to a certain theme. This phenomenon, the use of leitmotif, is central to Buber & Rosenzweig’s German translation of the Bible (Die Schrift) made in the 1920s and ‘30s, perhaps the last great cultural enterprise of German Jewry before the Holocaust; Everett Fox attempts to recreate this approach in his English translation, The Five Books of Moses. (There is also play involving similar sounding words, as in the juxtaposition of Adam and Eve’s nakedness, ויהיו שניהם ערומים in Gen 2:25 and the snake’s cunningness, והנחש היה ערום, in 3:1, although the two words are really from totally different linguistic fields; or ותכלנה / ותחילנה, the end of the good years and beginning of the bad years in Gen 41:53, in the Joseph story). Here, the use of such similar phrases seems to suggest that Nadav and Avihu were also consumed in some kind of “sacrificial offering.” Such a reading makes the phrase “by close to Me I shall be sanctified” more coherent—but such an idea, tottering dangerously close to human sacrifice, is antithetical and even anathema to all that that we understand as Judaism and the spirit of the Torah, a kind of revival of the option that seemed to have been eliminated once ad for all by the Binding of Isaac, one of whose meanings seems to be the replacement of a would-be human sacrifice by an animal one. And yet, here it is. God’s awesomeness seems to be enhanced by his arbitrariness. I present the textual facts, but don’t really know what to make of them.

I will conclude this section by mentioning that I find Rashi on 9:22,23 of particular interest for the way he explains a subtle exegetical problem regarding the two blessings recited by Moses and Aaron, and their unexplained going into the Tent of Meeting; and 10:2-3 on our issue.

Postscript—More on “Fire came down”

After Shabbat I thought further about the story of Nadav and Avihu, formulating it for myself in terms of the perennial question of certain Hasidic texts: what does this teach every person, in every time and place? Why couldn’t the Torah have gone directly from Chapter 9, which ends with the acceptance of the sacrifice and the people shouting in joy, to Chapter 11? One reader, Perry Zamek, suggested the following:

I think the point that the Torah wants to make is that there is a fine line between acceptable and unacceptable in the service of God. The slightest deviation from that which He commands can be fatal (asher lo tzivah otam), no matter who the perpetrator is… I don’t mean to say that any transgression makes one culpable of the death penalty, but there is a lesson to be learned. I once gave a talk focusing on the importance of boundaries in halakhah—e.g., the difference between an action carried out just before the onset of Shabbat, and the same action carried out only a minute later, once Shabbat has begun. Other examples include the idea of sof zman kriat shma, shiurim (in terms of issurei akhila), and so on. The idea is that halakhic practice is not merely a matter of personal inclination (to daven when we want, etc.) but is constrained by rules (daven by a certain time, or you’ve missed out).

But I think there is something else as well: many people derive a great sense of security, of strength, from religious ceremony. Whatever else may be going wrong in their lives, they know they can count on a certain sense of order, of wholeness, of changelessness from the ritual of the synagogue or, in olden times, the Temple or Sanctuary (I can only imagine it, of course, but such a feeling is expressed in many psalms). On one level, of course, there is something positive, reassuring in this fact, but on another level, the Torah wants to upset such a feeling of complacency, of religion as a source of well-being. The idea here is that, precisely on the day of greatest harmony, of closing the circle on the long-awaited day of inaugurating the Mishkan, there is an irruption of chaos, a glimpse into a kind of chasm lying beyond the sense of order and pomp and circumstance—to remind us that God is awesome, frightening, mysterious, that the Holy is also Wholly Other, utterly beyond man’s ken.


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