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Shemini 2012

For today’s Devar Torah I would like to focus on the core of our Sedra; namely, the significance of the eighth day and the troubling episode of the death of two of Aaron’s sons.

The eighth day

As we know, the title of our Sedra, Shemini, means “eighth”, a number which has particular significance in Jewish teaching. Seven, of course, is a number which denotes completeness: the world was created in seven days (including the concept of Shabbat), and the festivals of Succot and Pesach each have seven days. Seven denotes a complete cycle. Eight then indicates the start of a new cycle, but one which begins on a higher plane. The musical analogy is that of the octave, with each eighth note of the scale constituting the start of a fresh scale in the same key but at a higher pitch. So it is with counting in the Bible. That is why the Brit Milah must take place on the eighth day, to mark the start of a new higher spiritual plane.

So what is happening in our Sedra? At the end of the preceding Sedra of Tsav, we read of how the priests were required to spend seven days in front of the Tent of Meeting in order to contemplate their investiture. The symbolic significance was that Aaron and his sons were entering a new phase of their lives, as consecrated priests. The seven days of the investiture marks a period of atonement and of preparation for their new mode of service to G-d. This  begins properly on the eighth day, namely at the beginning of the Sedra of Shemini. The Talmud tells us that “that day G-d felt the same joy as on the day that Heaven and Earth were created” (Megillah 10b). G-d’s plan was that from this very day, through the service in the Mishcan, Heaven and Earth would now be linked together continuously. So truly the eighth day marked a new beginning.

In fact, the Rabbis tell us that this particular eighth day was uniquely special, as it was crowned with no fewer than ten firsts:

  1.  It was the first day of the week.
  2.  It was the first day of the first month (Rosh Chodesh Nisan).
  3.  It was the first day when the twelve princes of the tribes began to offer their gifts  of consecration.
  4.  It was the first day the priests served.
  5.  It was the first day of the Divine sacrifices.
  6.  It was the first day fire descended from Heaven on to the altar.
  7.  It was the first day sacrificial meat was eaten.
  8.  It was the first day private altars were forbidden.
  9.  It was the first day the Divine Presence (the Shechina) rested upon Israel.
  10. It was the first day the priestly blessing was bestowed upon the people.

The symbolic significance of the eighth day is its timeless character. Just as the week does not have an eighth day, so the eighth day belongs to things which are outside the orbit of normal time. The Mishcan is such a concept: it is G-d’s precinct, where He revealed His presence—a presence which is eternal, not bound to time. The timelessness of the Brit Milah is characterised by the requirement to circumcise on the eighth day, thereby underlining the eternal nature of the Jewish people. And the festival of the eighth day, Shemini Atzeret, is appointed to honour the Torah and to emphasise its eternal validity and timeless truth. Just as the Mishcan, the Jewish people and The Torah are all three timeless, so they are each consecrated by a timeless day, the eighth day. It is therefore no surprise that the rest and peace of the seventh day, Shabbat, which G-d sanctified at the time of the Creation, may be overridden by each of these eighth day timeless values: By the service of the Sanctuary (which must take place even on Shabbat); by Brit Milah (which must take place on the eighth day, even on Shabbat); and by the saving of life. So the Mishcan, the Brit and the saving of life will each transcend the sanctity of the Shabbat by virtue of their eternal, G-d given character.

Nadab and Abihu

As a prelude to the episode of Aaron’s sons, there is a most puzzling verse (Vayikra 9:6). As the entire community stand together, Moses tells them, “This is the matter which G-d has commanded you shall do, and then the glory of G-d will appear to you.” What is the matter which G-d has commanded? The Torah does not explicitly state what this is. It cannot refer to the service of the Mishcan, as this was performed only by the priests. There are a number of explanations given by the Rabbis, who were perplexed by this verse. That quoted by Hirsch and Nachshoni is derived from a work called “Toras Kohanim”. According to this interpretation, the verse refers to the need to remove the evil impulse from the hearts of the people, so that all will be united in fear and in a common purpose to serve the Almighty. The Torah is emphasising that the single purpose of all the rituals of the offerings is to unite the people and remove from their hearts those uncontrolled animal impulses which are symbolised by the animals offered to G-d. Having at last atoned for the sin of the Golden Calf, the people must now continue the process of the sacrifices through performing the mitzvah of nullifying the evil impulse of idolatry. And just as the preceding Sedrot have taught that only certain animals may be sacrificed, so this Sedra goes on to identify which animals may be eaten, to ensure that the Jewish people maintain their spirituality and forsake all baser instincts. So the message of this strange verse is that the matter which G-d has commanded us to do is only that which He has commanded. No more and no less.

Why did they die?

And this is the message which is reinforced in exemplary form by the experience of Nadab and Abihu, who died on this very day through offering “strange fire” before G-d, which He had not commanded. In an instant the joy of the eighth day changes to anguish when Aaron’s two sons are suddenly consumed by a fire sent by G-d. Many commentators have sought to offer explanations for these untimely deaths. Although the reason for their deaths is stated quite clearly in the Torah, the Rabbis nevertheless found the severity of their punishment difficult to comprehend, and sought to probe beyond the reason given in order to ascertain how their sin could have arisen. Amongst the explanations suggested, we can find the following examples of their implied disrespect for the Mishcan and the offerings:

  1. They entered the Mishcan wearing the robes of a regular priest rather than those of a High Priest;
  2. They entered the Mishcan having imbibed alcohol.
  3. They brought in a fire which they took from a stove, rather than from the altar.
  4. They offered a sacrifice which they had not been commanded to bring.
  5. They offered a sacrifice which they had been commanded not to bring.

Other explanations relate to possible character defects which discredited their priesthood:

  1. They did not take wives, because they felt no other family was sufficiently distinguished.
  2. They did not have children.
  3. They determined the Halacha in the presence of their teacher Moses.
  4. They awaited the deaths of Moses and Aaron so that they could take over the leadership of the nation.

There are still other, more esoteric or technical explanations. How then are we to understand this episode, which is the pivotal event of this Sedra and sufficiently important to be mentioned at the outset of the Torah reading on Yom Kippur?  Perhaps there is a clue in today’s Haftara, which describes the return of the Ark to Jerusalem at the time of King David. When the Ark appears to be in danger of falling off the cart, one of the men touches the Ark in order to steady it and is immediately killed by G-d. Thus the Haftara underlines the message that performing an act which G-d did not command, no matter how inspired or spiritual, invites destruction. Ecstasy, instead of expanding spirituality, can lead to egotism, to zealotry and to a passionate pursuit of G-d’s honour at the expense of tolerance and true obedience. Sincerity of motivation is insufficient in itself.

So let us look once more at Nadab and Abihu against this background. As the Torah tells us, “Each took his pan” (10:1). Although they were Aaron’s sons, they did not consult him. They did not even consult one another. Each took his own pan. In their fervour, each thought only of himself. To be sure, their object was no doubt the glorification of G-d. After all, the Torah tells us immediately after their death that G-d said, “I will be sanctified by those near to me” (10:3). But however near to G-d Nadab and Abihu were, and however worthy their motive, they failed to carry out the ritual prescribed by G-d. At the very moment when G-d’s oneness was to be demonstrated to the entire nation, they showed through their individualism that they lacked the spirit which G-d required of His priests. And it is clear that the individual components of their offering did not comply with the requirements of the Divine service.

The purpose of offerings is to demonstrate subservience to the fulfilment of G-d’s Will. So offerings of one’s own devising are a negation of the very truth that G-d seeks in man. Nadab and Abihu were exceptional in their standing and in their spirituality; they were close to G-d. Nevertheless, they die tragically. They did what they wanted to do, but not what G-d wanted them to do. When people on the level of Nadab and Abihu fail to distinguish between Divine will and human will, the punishment is instant death.

Love or fear of G-d

Rabbi Riskin has suggested that Nadab and Abihu exemplify the tension between the Love of G-d and the Fear of G-d, which is built into the very nature of religious experience. To quote:

“Love of G-d engenders the desire to constantly feel the presence of the divine, to strive to become ever closer to the omniscient and compassionate creator.   Fear of G-d engenders an awesome inadequacy, a sense of human frailty and transience, before the omnipotent and eternal ruler of the universe. Love of G-d inspires the individual to overcome all barriers, to push aside all veils, in a human attempt to achieve divine fellowship. Fear of G-d fortifies the fences separating us from the Almighty and inspires us to humbly serve the author of life and death from a distance—without getting burnt by the divine fire.

He goes on to say:

              “Love G-d, but don’t lose your sense of awe and reverence. Rejoice in G-d, but not without a measure of trembling. Strive to get close to the divine dwelling, but do not break through the door.

              “Nadab and Abihu were caught up in the religious ecstasy of the moment and wanted to get even closer to G-d. Their motives may well have been suffused with love of the divine, but strange fires can lead to alien fanaticism, just as passion can breed perversion. They brought a strange fire—and G-d would not accept it. With all the inherent grief and tragedy, there was a time when the divine lesson had to be taught to all generations: Sometimes, “by those who are nearest to me must I be sanctified.”


Tragic though the fate of Nadab and Abihu may be, it offers a message of comfort and reassurance. G-d does not want man to add to His laws or to change them. In His greatest gift to mankind, His Torah, G-d has made it clear what He wants from man. Our duty is to learn and understand His laws and perform them to the best of our ability. It is not given to any of us to seek to change the eternal teaching of the Torah. The message of Shemini is the timeless character of the Torah and of the Avodah, and of G-d’s intention that His laws should be capable of being observed and fulfilled by the entire community of Israel. Unless we approach G-d on this basis and in this spirit, we will only be offering Him a “strange fire”.

Neville Nagler  21 April 2012

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