While Pesach is now behind us, a fifth question arises as we look at the Torah portion for this week: Why is this week different from all other weeks? On all other weeks we read one parashah (Torah portion) each week; on this week we read only half the portion, postponing the second half to the following week.
Why do we do this? It is one of the rare examples where the lectionary (cycle of Torah readings) in the Reform Movement differs from that of the rest of the Jewish world. In the rest of the Diaspora, festivals are observed for two days (stemming from the time before the calendar was fixed), so the Shabbat of April 10-11 is considered to be the eighth day of Passover (that is, the second day of the conclusion of the festival), on which a special Torah portion is read (Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17). But because the calendar has been fixed for millennia, the Reform Movement has never observed the second day of festivals. So for us, April 10-11 is a regular Shabbat when we continue the cycle of Torah readings with Sh'mini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47). The problem is that if on the following week we were to read the next portion, Tazria/M'tzora, we would be completely out of sync with the rest of the Jewish world, which would be reading Sh'mini. Striving to balance Reform festival practice with our simultaneous commitment to K'lal Yisrael, "the whole community of Israel," the Movement decided to split the Sh'mini portion in two, reading Sh'mini I on April 10-11 when the rest of the Jewish world reads the eighth day of Pesach portion, and Sh'mini II, the other half, on April 17-18, joining the rest of the Jewish world in the same Torah reading.
What does the portion say? Before the reading last Shabbat on the first day of Pesach interrupted our story of the consecration of Aaron as High Priest and his sons as priests, we had left them all sitting at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting for seven days, filling themselves with the sanctified bread and meat they had prepared. This week, our portion begins vay'hi bayom hash'mini, "on the eighth day" (hence the title). The eighth day is significant: it is the day after the seventh day, when the world was completed, and is thus the first day of a new world, a new creation. The eighth day suggests that Aaron and his sons have been recreated, reborn, into a new identity, as they have internalized the holiness of both the entrance to the place where God's Presence was to be encountered and the offerings they had eaten there.
On this auspicious day, God commands Aaron to take a calf for a sin-offering and a ram for a burnt-offering (Leviticus 9:2). Rashi (and the Sifra midrash he quotes) is struck by the choice of a calf—suggesting it signified that God was ready to pardon him for his, and the people's, sin with the Golden Calf - another aspect of his "re-birth." Aaron, assisted by his sons, makes this initial offering of his priesthood, Aaron and Moses go forth and bless the people, and as evidence that the new High Priest had done his work correctly, the k'vod, "glory," of Adonai appears to all the people, just as Moses had prophesied earlier (Leviticus 9:6), and a fire goes forth from before God and consumes the altar and its offerings (Leviticus 9:24). The consecration of the kohanim, "priests," is complete.
Or is it? The fire that came forth from God seems to have intrigued two of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1), and they themselves each took a fire pan, put fire and incense in it and offered eish zarah, "strange (or alien) fire," which God had not commanded them. At that point "fire came forth from heaven and consumed them," (Leviticus 10:2), a parallel to Leviticus 9:24. What had they done wrong? What was this "alien fire"? Why, so soon after they had been consecrated, did God take their lives?
Rashi, again citing the Sifra, argues that the two young priests performed the ritual correctly, but had not done so as a mitzvah, a "commandment"—that is, they had not consulted Moses to see whether it was God's intent that they offer the fire. Ibn Ezra agrees. If these two commentators are correct, it is a reminder that the way the priests—and we today—serve the God of Israel is not only by executing the proper sacrifices (pagan nations did that too) or by proper saying the prayers (non-Jewish faithful pray as well), but also by our intention to fulfill a command of God. Others commenting on verse 10:1 suggest that the two priests erred in the way they offered the incense and the fire or that they made their offering too close to the Holy of Holies or that they had been drinking (interpreting Leviticus 10:9).
And then God responds, opaquely: Bik'rovai ekadeish v'al p'nei chol ha-am ekaveid, meaning "Through those who are close to Me I will be sanctified [or, "My holiness will become manifest"] and in the face of all the people My glory [related to kavod] will appear," or perhaps, "Through those who come close to Me, I will be sanctified" (Leviticus 10:3). As we have seen, the word karov, the root of the word that means "to make an offering," also means "to be close." Is God saying that the deaths of these close priests, who came close through their offering, made God's holiness manifest to the people? Had the offerers become the offering? We have noted in our commentary on Parashah Vayikra that human sacrifice, as much as a few pious people may yearn to make it—is forbidden; did God turn the two priests' mistaken offering into the ultimate offering? Were their lives given that the other priests—and the people—might survive? And was their death the real climax of the priests' consecration? More questions—not to be definitively answered but to be pondered in studying this troubling portion.
"And Aaron was silent," the story concludes (Leviticus 10:3). Before the roaring blaze of this all-consuming fire, so are we.
Rabbi Richard N. Levy recently retired as Rabbi of the Synagogue and Director of Spiritual Growth at the Los Angeles campus of HUC-JIR, where he continues to teach in the fields of liturgy, spiritual growth, and social justice. He is a past Director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at the campus and a past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
For reasons we readers can neither fully understand nor justify, Aaron's sons received a fiery and immediate death sentence from God for bringing forward strange fire; clearly an egregious act sufficiently incongruous with God's expectations, to say the least. In reaction to his sons' obliteration, their father "Aaron was silent," (Leviticus 10:3), which seems about right to me.
Rabbi Bamberger1 teaches us that through Aaron's silence, he "acknowledged the justice of the decree" (p. 801). What justice and what decree? Above, Rabbi Levy ponders whether the "offerers [had] become the offering," implying that Adonai actually has an interest in human sacrifice. Our tradition, which sees God everywhere, is naturally obligated to attempt to understand divine intention when a death, especially one caused by the Creator Himself, seems unjust or just plain cruel. But I see far more meaning in Aaron's silent reaction than in its wrenching cause.
Aaron's silence actually becomes our Jewish template for being human in the face of inexplicable loss. Our sources wisely render visitors to a shiva house silent unless spoken to. Rabbi Maurice Lamm2 teaches us how absurd it is to say "How are you?" to a mourner in the valley of the shadow. Rabbi Ganzfried's (d.1886) Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (Ch. 207) reminds us of Job's friends who remained silent yet present in the face of his agonizing losses. "They sat with him on the ground [in silence for] seven days and seven nights (Job 2:13)."
Our tradition accepts that life is replete with inexplicable realities that defy explanation. At the same time, we are taught that what counts far more than knowing what to say to those who suffer is showing up for them in meaningful ways when they are most vulnerable. Being trumps speaking. Of course Aaron was silent; what on earth is there to say? And of course Job's friends were silent. Because for we who console the bereaved, an honest embrace says far more than words anyway.
Bernard J. Bamberger, commentator on Leviticus in The Torah: A Modern Commentary, W. Gunther Plaut, ed. (NY: UAHC, 1981), p. 801
Maurice Lam, The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning (Middle Village, NY: Jonathan David Publishers, 1969), pp. 122-125
Rabbi Marc L. Disick is the Interim Senior Rabbi at Congregation Emanu El in Houston, Texas.
Sh’mini, Leviticus 9:1-10:11
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 798-802; Revised Edition, pp. 705-710;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 615-622