Shemini

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

"The sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, they put fire in them and placed incense upon it, and they brought before G‑d an alien fire that he had not commanded them. A fire came forth from before G‑d and consumed them, and they died before G‑d. Moses said to Aaron: Of this did G‑d speak, saying, 'I will be sanctified through those who are nearest to Me, thus I will be honored before the entire people,' and Aaron was silent." What was this "alien fire"? Why was Aaron silent? Our Rabbis have expended "a sea of ink" attempting to respond to these questions. Some suggest that Nadab and Abihu were truly righteous individuals who were over zealous in their attempt to serve G‑d. There are, as well, opinions that would have it otherwise. Whatever their misdeed, over zealousness or its opposite, one can understand that every action has its consequence especially so when one carries the mantle of spiritual authority in community. For with such authority comes the additional responsibility of one's every deed having a profound influence upon the people in their adherence to G‑d's Law. On the statement "I will be sanctified by those who are nearest to me." the Daas Z'kanim M'Baalei Tosfos states:

"Through the death of those nearest to me I will be sanctified and make my name greater among the People and how much more so will they keep themselves from doing such things, and they will fear me." In the face of the death of two of his sons Aaron maintained his silence. His seemingly stoic response to this personal tragedy would be wrongly understood to represent an indifference to the events that surrounded him; to the tragedy that had befallen his own sons. Rather, it represents an acceptance of the power of G‑d and His representation of what is fair and just. This theme plays out in many forms throughout our Jewish tradition. We have recently celebrated the Exodus from Egypt. Commenting upon the slavery of Egypt our Sages note that, in reference to Jacob, mitaso shlema, his bed was complete, indicating that all of Jacob's children were righteous individuals. What then prompted the slavery of the Jewish People in Egypt? Was this a punishment for their actions? The Torah tells us otherwise. "And He said to Abram, 'Know with certainty that your offspring shall be aliens in a land not their own - and they shall serve them, and they shall oppress them - four hundred years. But also the nation they will serve, I shall judge, and afterwards they will leave with great wealth.'" (Genesis 15:13) "G‑d said to Moses, 'Come to Pharaoh, for I have made his heart and the heart of his servants stubborn so that I can put these signs of Mine in his midst. And so that you may relate in the ears of your son and your son's son that I made a mockery of Egypt and My signs that I placed among them - that you may know that I am G‑d.'" (Exodus 10: 1,2)

It would seem that G‑d envisioned the Egyptian epic as a teaching tool for Jew and non-Jew alike. It was a very public demonstration of G‑d's Might and Will. In this process thousands upon thousands of Jews suffered and died. The frustration resulting from this fact doubtless served as an element in the often rebellious nature of the Jews during their trek to the Holy Land. Ultimately however, the collective Jewish conscience was able, as Aaron, to accept that their lives are truly fulfilled when they are used in the service of G‑d, even when that service itself curtails the very life they treasure. No more eloquent example of this acceptance can be found than the Kaddish prayer recited by the mourners at graveside. Far from mourning, it is a public testimony of Faith in G‑d and His promises to our People by one who must come to grips with the death of a loved one. Says the mourner in the company of his fellow Jews, "May his great name be magnified and sanctified in the world that is to be created anew, where he will revive the dead, and raise them up into life eternal, will rebuild the city of Jerusalem, and establish his Temple in the midst thereof...", this as the mourner stands before the just filled grave of a loved one. Judaism, unlike other Faiths, presents us with a history of G‑d's interaction with humanity and the Jewish People.

This last century has brought new credence to the Biblical narrative. Archeologists have unearthed numerous finds validating the stories of Scripture. Our ever developing understanding of the human condition has kindled new respect for our tradition's view of the human being and his/her role in the family and society as a whole. Yet all the logical and scientific proofs of the validity of our Jewish tradition, do not produce a religious individual. Ultimately the believer must accept the infinite wisdom of G‑d, even when that wisdom functions in a manner that seems unfair and undeserved. This is the challenge of Faith. In our morning prayers we say, "The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the L‑rd." Why not love you might rightly ask? Fear of the L‑rd denotes our acceptance of G‑d as infinite and of ourselves as finite, of G‑d's wisdom which extends from the beginning of time to the end of time and is absolute in contrast to our own finite, subjective wisdom. Each of us, as Aaron, as the Jews fresh out of slavery, must grapple with this challenge of Faith. It is the bedrock upon which the religious life is premised. Accepting that there is a power greater than our own whose wisdom is beyond our understanding and whose actions no matter how incomprehensible to us are for the good is not a cop out. It is the act of Faith, manifest as a spiritual, emotional and intellectual acceptance of G‑d's Will. In these days prior to Shavuot as we prepare ourselves to once again "stand at Sinai" to declare Naaseh V'Nishma, "we will do and we will hear" we would do well to consider our personal Faith in the G‑d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.