When Words Aren’t Sufficient

Rabbi Lynnda Targan

Rabbi Lynnda Targan

Parshat Shemini

What does it mean to live a life of holiness in a sacred community? Parshat Shemini, the third parsha in the book of Leviticus, which is surrounded by what is commonly known as The Holiness Code of the Torah, provides food for thought.

The name Shemini is a variant of the word for the number eight. It refers to the eighth day when the completed consecration of the Mishkan occurs — the day after the sacrificial system for the priests is explained in vivid detail. These procedures are juxtaposed against the rules of kashrut, which follow later. The narrative regarding the sacrificial protocols serves as a continuation of the Israelites attempt, after their liberation, to create a holy community as participants in the sacred Covenant with God.

Though the sections of the text may seem random, taken in its entirety, we note that the seemingly disparate segments all inform us about divine boundaries and separations. In addition, the parsha gives concrete examples of what lies in the differences between the “sacred and the profane,” the “contaminated and the pure” and the appropriate versus the inappropriate. God has specific requirements for certain rituals and behaviors that are set apart from all others, and there is an expectation that they be followed beyond the letter of the law to establish a system of holiness.

A strange and disturbing story dissects the directives imposed on the Kohanim, the priests and the early rules of kashrut. The text says, “The sons of Aaron, Nadav and Abihu, each took his fire pan, they put fire in them, and placed incense upon it; and they brought before the Lord an alien fire which the Lord had not commanded them. A fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.” (Vayikra 10:1-2) Why this drama? What are we to learn from this seemingly random tragedy?

Many commentators, including Rashi and the Rambam, have speculated about this peculiar incident and have offered unique and diverse theories. Despite their myriad speculations, myriad questions ensue.

Were the sons of Aaron sacrificed because of Aaron’s sin with the Golden Calf? Did the sons of Aaron penetrate too near to the innermost sanction of the Tabernacle, the Holy of Holies? Were these Kohanim, Nadav and Abihu, drinking wine to intoxication and were forbidden to be in the Holy of Holies in a drunken state?

Are they penalized because they took it upon themselves to offer an incense fire that God had not sanctioned beyond any daily incense sacrifice required? Was the incense from an impure source? Did the brothers discuss the possibility of this particular offering with Moses or Aaron first, out of respect for their authority prior to the disastrous occurrence?

The peshat of the text does not specify the fatal offense, but the Sifra, the Midrash halacha to the Book of Leviticus, conjectures that the young priests brought the offering in celebration of the dedication of the Tabernacle, albeit it was not part of the prescribed rituals and punishable because of it.

To most of us, having a lethal outcome for any of the above conjectured offenses feels overtly senseless and cruel and an illogical consequence. But in the meta sense, according to the stated laws of Leviticus, avoidance of the impure is a prerequisite for the attainment of the expected status of purity and holiness.

When Aaron witnessed the shocking death of his two sons the text reads: “And Aaron was silent.” In the face of such unspeakable horror, Aaron who had served as the orator for Moses, from early on in the narrative, was rendered utterly speechless.

The Book of Leviticus doesn’t deal with inner lives or kavanot (intentions), as a way forward so we are seriously impacted emotionally by Aaron’s vast silence. Given the monumental family tragedy, silence appears to be the only appropriate response to such a catastrophic event, even for a master of words.

In the Jewish religion, which is monumentally concerned with the power and impact of words, the story acknowledges that there are times in our lives when no words are sufficient. And it encourages us to take a breath and cultivate the discernment between appropriate silence and the time and place for meaningful speech.

By design, the text in the beginning of the Book of Vayikra asks all of us to examine what we are called to do on our earthly paths. The summation of its parts, including Parshat Shemini, bids us to understand that in a post-sacrificial world, we must all see ourselves as Kohanim, demanding behaviors that facilitate each of us to live lives of holiness while building sacred communities motivated by love.

Rabbi Lynnda Targan is an independent community rabbi and the co-founder of the Women’s Midrash Institute. She is also a Mussar facilitator and a speaker, teacher, life cycle officiant and author. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.


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