On the eighthand final day of the melu’im or inauguration service of the Mishkan we find Aaron and his sons being installed as Kohanim or priests in a highly structured service. Our Torah reading this week, Parshat Shemini, then takes an abrupt turn with two of Aaron’s sons being engulfed by a heavenly fire.
What did they (Nadav and Abihu) do to deserve such a fate? Our Etz Hayim Chumash addresses it initially by noting we are not explicitly told why they died. Then, it goes through the age-old laundry list of explanations by the various commentators, and I invite you to consider the entire array at page 633. One thing is certain—no one will forget and no one will take the Temple service casually. Or will they? As long as there has been clergy, there have been episodes of officiants taking liberties with their holy office, treating it too casually, thus destroying what is truly precious.
I would like to change direction for a moment to a positive story. While still in rabbinical school, I was invited to co-officiate at a wedding with a retired rabbi from the grandparents’ synagogue. We conferred during the weeks prior. The older rabbi began the first blessing, borie peri ha-gaffen. Initially, I assumed this was just part of the job for him as he hardly knew the bride and groom. He held the cup high and the tone and intensity of his voice literally startled me. Instantly, I could picture divine blessing saturating the earth and causing its succulent fruit to flourish, giving the farmers and vintners the ability to bring out the best of its potential. I instantly recalled the times I had made this very blessing in a casual or perfunctory manner. It was as if I had an epiphany on that strange bimah that evening. There I resolved to make all my subsequent brachot with the same joy and verve that was literally resonating through my every fiber. Certainly, we have shortchanged God, you and I periodically in this effort, but I still try to retain the sense of purpose I became imbued with that night each time I am called upon to utter holy words.
As one attempts to improve him or herself, he or she will at the same time receive assistance. Reish Lakish (Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, 200 C. E., the chavruta, study partner, of the renowned Rabbi Yochanan, who rose from being a gladiator to a prominent scholar), makes an interpretation in Proverbs 3:34. “If it concerns the scorners, He scorns them, but unto the humble He gives grace.” Resish Lakish says this in light of our portion (11:44) which says “if you sanctify yourselves you will be holy, for I the Lord am holy.” The concept is that the very effort to improve oneself unleashes powers of assistance. When meeting someone making a noble effort, you want to help him or her. Meeting someone who is doing something shameful, your inclination is to turn away. Let us aspire to holiness.
Yom HaShoah, our Holocaust commemoration, is this Sunday. Who among us has not asked themselves the question: “How could so many righteous and pure souls have found no safety or support?” In the same vein, were not Nadav and Abihu doing what they “thought” was good and right? We have the most fundamental question man has ever posed: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” While far from an answer, we do see that the reason mourners are to omit the paragraph beginning “titkabein tzolototon (may the prayers of Israel be accepted) in the Kaddish is that a mourner cannot really be asked to enunciate such an optimistic prayer when the reality of death is before him or her. Or, to summarize Reish Lakish, a small or private indiscretion can become a large one quite easily. As we see from survivors of the Shoah, let us ponder (and have some) of the courage it takes to stay focused on rededicating one’s life after such a loss.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham