Drawing Too Close?

Sh'mini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg

Years ago, when I was visiting a friend in Rochester, we opted to take the train into the city for a show. Once we were comfortably seated, I kept trying to start a conversation. I was oblivious to my friend's succinct answers and the looks I was getting from fellow passengers. Finally, my friend offered some advice: "Dan, you're not supposed to make noise on the train!" I was reminded that often we are unaware of and surprised by social norms - the "dos and don'ts." Often, we simply conform, but it can be meaningful to reflect on these practices and potentially innovate with care.

Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, learn this lesson the hard way in Parashat Sh'mini. In fact, they don't get a second chance to demonstrate their learning. When Aaron and his sons offer sacrifices on behalf of the Israelites to ask forgiveness for wrongdoing, Nadav and Avihu offer "alien fire." It's unclear what "alien fire" is, but God responds by immediately killing them in anger.It appears that they went off script, behaving inappropriately in their positions as leaders of the community. The story leaves more questions than answers and we're called to delve into the mystery.

Typical biblical commentaries castigate Nadav and Avihu for crossing boundaries, ignoring protocols, or focusing too much on themselves. We often continue to focus on doing things "right." But perhaps there is more than one right way? Let's flip the script. What might we admire in these two young men? How might we see ourselves in their story?

The beauty of Torah is that we can offer many interpretations, even if those interpretations don't necessarily align. Reform Judaism prides itself on nurturing commitment to both tradition and modernity. Sometimes, this means venturing in new directions like adding musical instruments to our worship or livestreaming services. Perhaps the lesson of this narrative is not that innovation is prohibited, but rather that we need to be cautious in how we innovate?

This idea is not new; in fact, it aligns with Rashi's commentary on these verses, where he elaborates that, "Rabbi Eliezer says, 'Aaron's sons died because they pronounced halachah in the presence of their teacher, Moses.' Rabbi Yishmael says, 'They went into the sanctuary in a drunken state.'" ("Mikarot Gedelot" on Leviticus 10:2). In other words, their transgression was not the act itself, but the disrespect they showed to Moses and God with the careless way they approached their precious responsibilities. Rashi's teaching leaves space for different perspectives on living our faith…as long as we do so with care and the purest intentions.

As Reform Jews, we're often misunderstood; we're perceived as lazy, ignorant, or simply picking and choosing ritual practices we like. It's not that we don't have proscribed and demanding rituals, but rather that we're called to constantly explore these acts, ensuring that they speak to the times and our values. Making things more complicated is the fact that we allow the space for practice to look different from person to person. Such dynamic exploration is exciting and meaningful.

When we come together in pluralistic places, we're called to take the time to share our practices and how we came upon them. I find that, when I explain my practice, my more observant peers are quite impressed by our committed and thoughtful ways, even when this veers from halachahhalachahהֲלָכָהLiterally, “walking, “way,” or “path;” refers specifically to a body of Jewish law governing all aspects of life; includes the 613 mitzvot (commandments) and ongoing interpretation over many centuries. .

Is it time to talk more on the train? Maybe...why does it need to be so quiet? More importantly, let's not be afraid to make noise as we engage with trickier texts like Parashat Sh'mini. We're not meant to accept rules without question, nor are we to act callously. Instead, we're reminded to be fully present in our responsibilities and commit ourselves to living out those ideals in ways we find meaningful. We need not be afraid of the sparks that can result from creativity and passion. Let us instead celebrate our role as carriers of Torah and venture forth as we continue to thoughtfully challenge norms and innovate our practice in new directions.

Originally published: