Shabbat Shemini — “The Soundlessness in the Middle” — 10 April 2010/26 Nisan 5770

12/04/2010 at 12:03 Leave a comment

Neil F. Blumofe

In their service to God, as part of their priestly functions, Nadav and Avihu are not the only sons of Aaron who misstep.  Just after their untimely deaths, we find two other brothers, Moses and Aaron, debating the proper handling and consumption of sacrifice by the remaining priests.  Our commentators point out that it is here that Moses and Aaron question and ponder what God meant in the revealed instruction.  Here we see, even after the tragedy of the two officiating priests who brought aish zarah, a strange fire before God, that the issues of how to worship, how to come before God are not resolved.  Moses has his firm opinion about this and Aaron, the grieving father, has his and they deliberate about this back and forth.

Not surprisingly, our sages and rabbinic commentators saw great value in this kind of spirited exchange.  Rather than think that this was a failing of approaching Divine Service, this back and forth discussion to gain clarification and direction was highly respected.  In a telling comment, our sages recognize that in this argument is the exactly middle of all of the words of the Torah, specifically between the words spoken by Moses, darosh, darash in verse 16.  The teaching here is that the enterprise of the entire Torah is centered in constant inquiry – one should always be pursuing a deeper meaning by challenging the words that are given.

So as we bring our own experiences and our own minds, in their greatness and limitations, to the text, how are we not in danger of acting like Nadav and Avihu, who perhaps questioned their instruction or added a bit of their individuality to the special offering before God?

As beautiful as the idea is, that the foundation of the Torah is based on questioning and examination, closer scrutiny of the argument between Moses and Aaron does not positively bear this out.  As Moses does his darosh, darash – as he fervently inquired — he escalates his emotions and becomes yiktsof, or wrathful or passionately inflamed with the two living sons, Elazar and Ithamar.  He questions their approach as priests and lets his anger get the better of him in this aching moment for Aaron and his family.  As priests they were provided with instruction of how to serve God in the holy places – now they are recognizing that this priestly instruction, the manual is unraveling before their eyes – two of the sons were killed while they were performing this service and now Moses turns his eyes on the two remaining sons and casts aspersions on how they officiate and manage the sacrifices given.

To not have a clear direction of how to approach the sacred is one thing – it is quite another to think that you have a path and a way only to see that it is filled with holes and hazard and possible danger that obfuscates your way to connecting with God.  Many of us have instincts or even a yearning towards something greater than ourselves – or at least we have waves of this desire that ebb and flow in the different stages of our lives – we want to connect with something beyond ourselves or we want to link our life to something perhaps more enduring – it is too severe to only regard our lives as nasty, brutish and short.  We know that we can’t take anything with us when we die, yet we still hope for a legacy of sorts, to think that our brief time in this world mattered, at least to somebody.  At times, we try to insulate ourselves from these serious thoughts, yet they remain, shadowing the stuff that we buy and our accomplishments.

What does it mean to raise issue with our sacred texts, knowing then that there is not an absolute answer to strive for – to know that even in the moment of connection with God, there can be separation and distance stemming from disagreement and even anger between two caring and devoted men who, with all of their hearts, want to seek God?  This is the direction of divine service?  This estrangement between brothers is its consequence?

In this instant, the disagreement between Moses and Aaron does not become a conflagration.  Moses limits himself as he listens to Aaron’s arguments – Aaron reminds Moses of what he has just been through and out of respect for his mourning perhaps, Moses concedes the point that he was originally pressing.  We see that God’s voice is absent in this exchange – that these two brothers are on their own in trying to figure out a proper way to serve God after tragedy.  It is also striking that neither brother leaves the field – faith and mettle are tested – and neither abandons his journey or his station in life.  Through grief and in silence, Aaron stays the course, maybe going through the motions, yet remaining present.  Moses, for his part recognizes that to continue his effectiveness, he can only push his brother so far – and without skipping a beat, the Torah reveals the instructions for keeping kosher next — yet, not wanting to leave this challenging episode, our sages maintain that the parameters for kashrut stem more from spiritual development than anything physical and the “why” to keep kosher is related to the death of Nadav and Avihu and the tensions that remain in Moses’ extraordinary family.

It is an obvious statement that in our lives we too do not have direction or a guarantee that if we perform certain actions our lives will take certain directions.  We too see that at this nexus in the days after Pesach, leading towards Shavuot and our receiving Torah, we are jarred back into history by our observance of Yom haShoah – a time when we think at the gaping holes that remain.  Like the unexplained deaths of two priests who were inaugurating a desired path to God, we too recognize our status as survivors and determine ourselves to move on past the heartbreak.

And we recognize that we are not out of the woods yet – just because we are witnesses or inheritors of such calamity, does not mean that something disastrous will not touch our lives too.  So, how do we keep going – we have two glimmers of an idea here – the first is to approach our lives with the attitude of darosh, darash – passionate caring and attention – to not let the details go in search for something greater, for we learn that it is in the details that our lives are distinguished and made holy.  Yet we must inquire without anger and without judgment and know when we have gone too far.  Second, is to see how what we do affects us – whether it’s the food that we eat to fuel our body or the actions that we take, all that we do has a spiritual consequence which if ignored, could ravage us in other, unexpected ways.

Even with incredible exegetical acrobatics, in the end we cannot explain the deaths of Nadav and Avihu – and too in our lives, there are many things and sadnesses that we cannot adequately explain – if we see a sacred kinship in this, we are better prepared to live without fear and with greater bandwidth of bringing substance to our lives, by what we ingest, how we associate, and what we do.  May we live with intention and sacred purpose, in defiance of tragedy and the terror of God’s looming absence.

Shabbat Shalom.

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3 April 2010/19 Nisan 5770 — Shabbat Hol haMoed Pesach — “Bling” Beha’alotcha — 5770

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