Yom Rivii, 21 Tammuz 5779
Wednesday, 24 July 2019
Parashat Shemini & Yom HaShoah 2012

Parashat Shemini & Yom HaShoah by Rabbi Alexandra Wright
17 April 2012

The death of two of the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, comes at the conclusion of the solemn and uplifting seven-day ceremony of consecration of the priests.·Purified and clothed in their ritual vestments, the two young men officiate for the very first time with their father. As the celebrations come to their conclusion, Aaron lifts his hands towards the people and blesses them and the Presence of God appears to the whole people.·At that moment a fire descends to consume the burnt offering on the altar.·The people see and shout and fall on their faces.·The fire is the fire of acceptance, of God’s acknowledgement that all has gone well in the proceedings, that if there has been any violation of ethical or ritual prohibitions, then all is forgiven and order restored.

It is a proud moment of achievement for these two young men, the elder sons of Aaron and Elisheva and brothers of Eleazar and Ithamar.·Their birth is announced in a genealogy list in Exodus 6:23.·Their father’s cousin, Korach, also mentioned here, is to make his appearance in the Book of Numbers, as a rebel against the authority of Moses and Aaron. In the aftermath of the rebellion, Korach and his followers are caught trying to offer up incense and are scorched in a lethal fire.

But it is not their first privileged experience. In Exodus 24, Nadav and Avihu ascend Mount Sinai with Moses and Aaron and seventy elders of Israel – and it is in this elected group that they experience a vision of God: ‘And they saw the God of Israel – under whose feet was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity’ (Exodus 24:9).·What did they make of this revelation?·What did they see and experience that was to lead them perhaps to attempt to replicate the experience in the Tent of Meeting, and that resulted in their tragically, premature deaths?

On the day of their deaths, they lay coals in their firepans, add incense and bring what the Torah calls esh zarah – ‘alien fire’ – into the Tent of Meeting.·There has been no command from God, no instruction from Moses or Aaron, they take this inexplicably upon themselves.· The consequences are devastating; they are consumed by a fire and die instantly.·What happened? Was it a tragic accident?· Did one of them drop his censer too close to their inflammable vestments, and in the confined precincts of the Tent of Meeting, both went up in the conflagration?· Were they intoxicated as suggested by legislation that follows on from this story, prohibiting the imbibing of wine or other strong drink before entering the Tent of Meeting? (Leviticus 10:8-11).·The midrash suggests that their early experiences had made them arrogant, imagining themselves as assuming authority and power once Aaron and Moses were dead.·‘Let us see who will die first,’ says God.·Like Korach subsequently, they rebel against the authority of the older generation – ‘Are not all the people holy?’ Korach is to ask Moses later on.·What does it mean that both sets of cousins are consumed by divine fire?

Are they rebels like Korach, or is something else happening here?· Perhaps indeed, their experience on Mount Sinai has not only turned their heads, but claimed their fatal zeal.·Sinai recedes into the past and as priests they know that they are God’s anointed, privileged to enter the Holy of Holies and glimpse what the mountain yielded from its top – the stone tablets and the ineffable presence of God. They step inside the curtained tent, treading silently, pushing aside the blue, purple and crimson yarns of twisted linen.·There, behind the curtain of partition they glimpse the Ark of the Covenant, overlaid with pure gold and above it the two cherubim, made of hammered gold, standing at each end of the cover of the Ark.·Their wings are spread above, shielding the cover, their faces turned inward, in praise of the unseen presence of God.·‘There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you…all that I will command you…’ (Exodus 25:22).

They wait, scarcely daring to breathe, their censers hanging low towards the ground, the incense rising to their nostrils.· Where is the sapphire pavement?·Where is the throne of God’s glory?·They step closer; they touch the beaten gold with their hands, they swing their censers and smoke fills the enclosed space.

It is here in the Holy of Holies that they are found, scorched by fire. In the numbness that follows, Aaron opens his mouth to protest, but no sound emerges; his heart is broken, but there are no tears; he exhales to remove the terrible weight that pressures his abdomen, but he is silent.

There is no mourning; no rituals, no prayers, no eulogies for the dead, no words of comfort for the living, and no monument is erected in memory of the dead. The father can only silently plead remembrance for his two sons dragged to an unknown grave by their own kinsmen, their charred bodies unrecognisable in the aftermath of the burning.

That any poem after Auschwitz is obscene?
Covenants of silence so broken between us
Can we still promise or trust what we mean?

Once, long ago, the story was told of the death of Aaron and Elisheva’s two sons; shaped and embedded into the sacred narrative, a long-lost author added in their own silent sorrow, Va-yidom Aharon – ‘Aaron was silent’ for the child they had lost in the burning of the Temple or in the flight from Jerusalem to Babylon.

And today, as the last survivors witness and their children and children’s children listen, tell and re-tell the stories of their parents and grandparents, we are shaping and embedding the story of our past, breaking the covenants of silence that stifled our peace and suffocated our hope.

We feast to keep our promise of never again.
(Micheal O’Siadhail, The Gossamer Wall, ‘Never’)

Parashat Shemini: Rabbi Aaron Goldstein
17th April 2012

Ritual purity is the major focus of one of the six Orders of the Mishnah, (the Rabbinic interpretation of the Torah laws relating to life in Temple days and post its destruction, written in 200CE). I would not normally focus on Leviticus 11:24-38, a passage that seemingly interrupts lists of beasts of the air, land and sea that were not to be eaten. However, on this occasion my options were limited and not having had the pleasure before, thought my Congregation and I might find something in focussing on impurities through contact with carcasses of mentioned beasts.

For The High Holydays, we adorn our scrolls and the ark with special white coverings to symbolise the search for purity during this period – a custom that, in some communities, even extends to the Rabbi and some members of the congregation, who may wear a white robe known as a kittel. White is also a symbol of death in Judaism, reminding visitors to the synagogue of the challenge posed in Deuteronomy 30:19, to ‘choose life.’

Ritual purity as defined in biblical times became a factor in the desire to keep men and women apart. The fear of ‘impurity,’ in relation to women especially during menstruation, enshrined in the laws of the Torah and dressed up as a desire to uphold those laws, meant that although women were not actually prohibited from carrying out the mitzvot in relation to prayer, the custom was for them to be excluded. If women did want to participate in prayer, it was deemed necessary to keep them separate (a practice that had it roots in the Second Temple, which included the Court of Women).

This was one aspect of the development of Judaism that witnessed the concern for ritual precision and purity quickly transformed in ritual from being a means to encourage and inspire righteous action to becoming an end in itself. Apologists talk about the vital, holy role that women could play insuring their own purity and that of the household, her domain being the kitchen and the bedroom.

“Rabbinic efforts to justify immersion indicate that the rationale was secondary to the practice. Midrash Sifra connects the ritual immersion of a vessel to another requirement for purification, namely, waiting for the sun to set. The midrash states that just as purification is linked to the simultaneous setting of the entire sun, so purification should be understood to refer to simultaneous immersion of the whole vessel.” (Carol Selkin Wise in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 631)

There are simply no grounds for this subjugation of women. It was - and for those who still practice it, is – purely discriminatory.

Liberal Judaism has never had need to justify from traditional sources the permission to include women in all aspects of synagogue life. Purity is a means to holiness and only has validity when it led to acts of lovingkindness. The Prophet, Amos extolled a God that would decline to accept the people’s offerings as long as injustice remained:

“I loathe, I spurn your festivals, I am not appeased by your solemn assemblies. If you offer Me burnt offerings, or your meal offerings, I will not accept them; I will not pay heed to your gifts of fatlings. Spare Me the sound of your hymns, and let Me not hear the music of your lutes. But let justice roll down like water, righteousness like an everflowing stream.” (Amos· 5:21-24).

Practices of purification can have a positive impact in our lives, personally defined and ordained rather than imposed. They can help us to feel personally revived, relate better to others around us, spiritually in our relationship with God or as a motivation to be as good a person as we can. All are practices that lead to a positive impact, on an earthly, practical level, and perhaps if we believe that God metaphorically smiles when we feel self-efficacious, then on a cosmic level too.

We might feel purified in a hot bath, with candle lit and bath bomb exploded, having walked in an area of natural beauty, experienced an inspirational concert or witnessed a feat of humanity at the pinnacle of skill, ability or thought, a Friday night Shabbat dinner that unifies family or friends, or being giving love and feeling loved. For the religious it might be through silent meditation or communal worship, through study of our Torah in all is guises. Any such stimulus that captures our senses can purify.

Yet the purification through performing a mitzvah, defined not as a commandment but as a good deed, exceeds them all. As it is written:· “Who may ascend the mountain of the Eternal One? Who may stand in God’s holy place? – the one who has clean hands and a pure heart.” (Psalm 24:3-4a)