Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Shmini – Vayikra (Leviticus) 9 - 11

"It came to pass on the eighth day that Moses called Aaron and his sons and the elders of Israel" (Lev. 9:1). "Shmini," translated “eighth,” denotes a new beginning. The previous Parasha ended with A'haron and his sons being charged to "not go outside the door of the tabernacle of meeting for seven days, until the days of your consecration are ended. For seven days he shall consecrate you" (8:33). And again in 8:35: “Therefore you shall stay at the door of the tabernacle of meeting day and night for seven days, and keep the charge of YHVH…" Thus, on the eighth day A'haron was to "take… a calf as a sin offering and a ram as a burnt offering, without blemish, and offer them before YHVH" (9:2). It is no mistake or coincidence that on this eighth day, symbolic of the new beginning and departure from the 'former things,' A'haron, who had played a major role in the golden calf episode (Ex. 32), was to offer, first and foremost, a calf. This offering is rendered a cut off mark, in the course of which "all the congregation drew near and stood before YHVH" (9:5 emphasis added). In this way the atonement was fully made (see 9:7-22) and YHVH's relationship with Yisrael could be restored. This procedure, as specifically prescribed by YHVH, resulted in “… the glory [kavod] of YHVH appear[ing] to all the people" right after Moshe and A’haron blessed them (9:23). According to Nechama Leibowitz, "The revelation of the Divine glory here denotes a reward for their efforts in erecting a Sanctuary for the Shekina".[1] “And fire came out from before YHVH and consumed the burnt offering and the fat on the altar, and all the people saw it, and they shouted and fell on their faces" (9:24). These sin offerings, therefore, became a demarcation point, separating sinfulness and profanity from YHVH's Holiness and Glory. The motif of the holy or clean versus the profane or the unclean is threaded throughout this Parasha, as we shall continue to observe.
 When the above described scene reached its peak, with "fire [coming] out from before YHVH… consuming the burnt offering…" as we just noticed, we are suddenly transferred without as much as a breather into the next one, with its parallel yet contradicting elements. And so we read in 10:1 about A’haron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu taking censors and putting fire and incense on them, which YHVH had "not commanded them." Theirs was a fire of their own making ("zara" - foreign, strange, of a different kind), which they brought near before YHVH, and "so fire went out from YHVH and devoured them" (v. 2). When the Children of Yisrael and their leaders did as they were commanded (see 9:10) and drew near to YHVH, His fire consumed the offering and He showed them His Glory. When Nadav and Avihu brought near before YHVH that which He did not command, it also resulted in a fire that went out from the Him, but this fire consumed them (see 10:1-2). The similar terms used to describe both episodes make for a sinister symmetry, one that demonstrates that often there may be but a fine line which separates the holy from the profane, the desirable from the detestable. An example of contrasting terms, that serve to highlight certain situations is seen in 9:24b, where we read that the people "shouted" - (va)yaronou - joyfully. In contrast, after Nadav and Avihu's sad annihilation, it says that A'haron was utterly silent, or even motionless - (va)yidom – root of d.o.m (see 10:3b). In Psalm 94:17, the expression "dwelling in silence" ("shachna duma”), denotes death. Psalm 115:17 says: "The dead do not praise YHVH, nor any who go down into silence" (duma, once again).

     "By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; And before all the people I must be glorified" (10:3) is the explanation as to why Nadav and Avihu, because of their lofty positions, had to be totally obedient to YHVH and could not misrepresent him as they had done. In fact, they are called here by YHVH "k'rova'i" - those who are close (or near) to Me - and as such, YHVH was to be rendered holy" ("eka'desh") by, or through them.  In addition, their actions were supposed to glorify YHVH causing others to also do so, with "eka'ved" being the term used, meaning literally "heavy," and by implication "highly esteemed."

In the second part of chapter 10, Moshe instructs A'haron and his two "remaining sons" (v. 12) to not display any signs of mourning. On the other hand, the rest of Yisrael was given permission to "bewail the burning which YHVH has kindled" (v. 6b, italics added). Interestingly, the “burning” here is not attached to the particular individuals, neither to human beings in general or even to death. The word used, which sounds so dreadfully detached, is "s'refa," meaning "burning” or “to burn." It appears that the emphasis is put on the calamity itself as it was inflicted by YHVH, with the priests being expected to identify with His approach (hence His strict orders to them not to display signs of mourning over the death of their relatives). In addition, they were to remain inside the tent (cf. 8:33,35, mentioned above) as long as YHVH's anointing oil was on them, and were also prohibited from drinking wine and intoxicating drink in the course of their service in Ohel Mo'ed ("Tent of Meeting", 10:6-9). This latter requirement led some commentators to surmise that YHVH's anger against Nadav and Avihu was kindled because they may have been inebriated while ministering. The purpose for these measures was "that you [i.e. the priests] may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which YHVH has spoken to them by the hand of Moses" (v. 11). But in order to be able to do so, they had, according to verse 10, to "distinguish between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean." It is this verse which encapsulates or summarizes the motif (as mentioned above) of the entire Parasha.

At the end of the following section (10:12-20), Moshe reproves A'haron and his remaining (“nota'rim”) sons, El'azar and Itamar, for not having eaten the remaining (“noteret”) offering, which was rightfully theirs (see v. 17). Instead, they burned the goat for the sin offering ("soraf," v. 16 – identical word to the “fire” mentioned in 10:6 above, which consumed Nadav and Avihu), making a fire of their own and getting rid of that which they were supposed to consume. Once again A’haron’s sons were not acting according to the prescribed instructions. Fear of failure appears to have led these two to over react and miss YHVH’s instructions. Here we also hear A'haron expressing himself for the first time after the loss of his two sons, a loss he refers to as, “such things [that] have befallen me" (v. 19), and wondering if the eating that was required "…had been good - (ha)yitav - in the eyes of YHVH. And Moses heard and it was good - (va)yitav - in his eyes" (vs. 19-20 literal translation). The echoing of A'haron's "good" in Moshe’s response seems to indicate that harmony had been restored.

Our Parasha clearly brings out the role of the priests in the Israelite society, and their view of their office. S.R. Hirsch elaborates on this issue: "The Hebrew priest is part of the nation, and his position is not an isolated one before God, but one that he occupies only within and through the nation….” Regarding the sacrifices and their function relative to the Almighty and to the worshipper, he says: “The closeness of and approach to God… may only be found through obedience to and acceptance of God's will…  The offering means to place the offerer at God's service, i.e., he wants to fulfill God's wishes through his offering. All offerings are therefore forms of Divine demands which the offerer, through his offering, accepts as the guidelines for his future conduct."[2]
In line with the theme of separating the clean from the unclean, the rest of the Parasha (chapter 11) is devoted to the type of animal, fish and fowl permitted for consumption, as well as to those that were forbidden. It is interesting that verses 4-7 constitute a list of four animals, all of which have one of the two traits required, but are devoid of the other. However, the first trait mentioned in all four cases happens to be the one that fulfills the requirement, whereas the specification of the missing one is second. The lesson to be learned here is simple:  even though things may seem 'right' or 'proper' at first sight, they should be investigated further, lest deception sets in (e.g. notice the order of adjectives in the title of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil). The above tragic scene, with Nadav and Avihu, A’haron’s sons, who may have had ‘good’ intentions, illustrates this point even more poignantly. YHVH’s holiness and His charge upon His people to be “set apart as He is” cannot to be measured by human standards of ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ and requires unquestionable obedience.

"You shall not make yourselves abominable with any creeping thing that creeps; nor shall you make yourselves unclean with them, lest you be defiled by them, for I am YHVH your Elohim. You shall therefore consecrate yourselves, and you shall be holy, for I am holy. Neither shall you defile yourselves with any creeping thing that creeps on the earth, for I am YHVH who brings you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your Elohim. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy" (11:43-45). The Israelites were separated for YHVH’s sake by being brought out of Egypt, the land of bondage, where they belonged to someone else (whose servants they were). Now, however, they belonged to their Maker. They were, therefore, to reflect His nature of holiness.

Aligning themselves with their Elohim and His ways is what makes the Israelite Nation a "holy nation." Partaking of that which is abominable in His sight, or even coming into contact with it renders those who choose to do so just as abominable - "sheh’ketz": “You shall not make yourselves (lit. “your soul”) abominable – teshak’tzu” - with any creeping thing that creeps” (v. 43).  The "abomination (of desolation)" in Daniel 11:31 and 12:11 employs the same word, with a certain modification (“shikutz”). Interestingly, the partaking of the unclean meat, fish, and fowl has no legal consequence. One may ask, therefore, if the result of being “abominable” and “defiled” before YHVH isn’t, in and of it self, the (unspecified) penalty (although according to Isaiah 66:17 the offender is not unpunished).

Our Parasha ends with a clear reminder of its theme: “to distinguish, [or separate], the unclean from the clean…" (11:47).


[1] New Studies in Vayikra Part 1, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner  
      Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc.,       
      Brooklyn, N.Y.

[2] Ibid