Tags: glory of the lord, kavod, Leviticus, Naso, Pekudei, Psalm 90, Shemini, torah portion
For seven days after Moses consecrates Aaron and his sons as priests, they sit at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. The Torah portion Shemini (“Eighth”) opens on the eighth day, when the new priests are ready to make their first offerings on the altar: two different offerings for the high priest Aaron, and four different offerings for the people.1 Moses explains:
Because today God will appear to you. (Leviticus/Vayikra 9:4)
After the animals and the grain have been assembled, and the rest of the Israelites are standing in front of the altar, Moses gives further instructions, saying:
This is the thing that God commanded you must do; then the kavod of God will appear to you. (Leviticus/Vayikra 9:6)
kavod (כָּבוֹד) = weight, importance, impressiveness, magnificence; a glorious manifestation (often translated as “glory”).
The Israelites have already witnessed a long string of miracles in Egypt, culminating in the splitting of the Reed Sea. They have followed the kavod of God, in the form of a pillar of cloud and fire, from Egypt to Mount Sinai. On the day of the revelation they experienced God’s kavod as lightning and smoke on the mountain itself, along with thunder and blasts of a shofar.2
Yet once miracles stop, it is hard to keep faith. When Moses stayed on top of Mount Sinai for 40 days, and no pillar of cloud and fire reappeared near the camp, the Israelites felt abandoned. Who would lead them to a new home?
In desperation, the men asked Aaron for an idol, then worshiped the golden calf he made.3 Moses returned to them, but God’s cloud and fire did not. The Israelites were so anxious to see the kavod of God again that when Moses called for donations to make a dwelling-place for God, they donated more than enough treasure and labor.4 The dwelling-place, the new Tent of Meeting, is completed at the end of the book of Exodus/Shemot.
Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the kavod of God filled the dwelling-place. (Exodus/Shemot 40:34)
For the cloud of God was over the dwelling-place by day, and fire was in it at night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, on all their journeys. (Exodus 40:38)
Presumably the cloud is resting over the Tent of Meeting on the day the new priests make their first offerings at the altar. So why do the Israelites need another view of God’s kavod?
Perhaps God, or Moses, knows that the Israelites are still insecure. The survivors of the Golden Calf incident have committed their work and treasure to God, and they are ready to follow the new version of God-worship Moses has laid out, in which priests are intermediaries. But they need divine confirmation that Aaron and his sons really are God’s chosen priests. After all, it was Aaron who made the Golden Calf—choosing to pacify the people rather than sticking to God’s commandment against idols. Could they trust him to serve only God from now on—and keep the Israelites in God’s favor?
Then Aaron raised his hands toward the people and he blessed them … (Leviticus 9:22)
The Torah doesn’t say what Aaron’s blessing is, but the Talmud assumes that it must be the blessing prescribed for priests in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar 5 (and still used in Jewish liturgy today):
After this blessing, one might expect the kavod of God to appear as promised. It does not.
19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, claimed that God delays the divine manifestation on purpose so as to prevent any belief that animal offerings make God’s glory appear by magic.6 The kavod appears when God wants it to appear.
Then Moses came, and Aaron, into the Tent of Meeting. Then they went out and they blessed the people … (Leviticus 9:23)
What is this second blessing? According to the Sifra, a 4th-century collection of commentary on the book of Leviticus, Moses says: “May it be God’s will to cause His Presence to rest upon the work of your hands! May God, the God of your fathers, increase your numbers a thousandfold and bless you, as He promised you!”
And the people respond with a verse that appears in Psalm 90:
May the comfort of God, our God, be upon us, and may the work of our hands be an enduring foundation for us. (Psalm 90:17) 7
Moses’ blessing is a prayer that God will indeed dwell in the new Tent of Meeting that the Israelite people made. The people’s response, in this context, is a prayer that the work they did with their own hands will result in both divine comfort and an enduring commitment to serving God.
The children of Israel are moved to commit themselves further to God when Moses and Aaron, their human leaders, come out of God’s dwelling-place and bless them. After this commitment,
… and the kavod of God appeared to all the people. Fire went out from the presence of God, and it devoured the rising-offering and the fatty animal-parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and they shouted with joy and they fell on their faces. (Leviticus 9:23-24)
At that sign of God’s acceptance, the people shout with joy—and relief.
A blessing from another person can seem like a useless exercise. After all, a human being has no power to make the blessing come true. We can only express the hope that God will make it happen.
And today, the sudden appearance of fire means an emergency, not divine acceptance.
Yet I remember when I received blessings from Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield, of blessed memory, and I felt a transfer of good will and even a sense of kavod. This feeling made a psychological difference to me, changing my attitude toward life and toward the divine.
I find I can be committed to an abstract principle, but not comforted by it. Comfort and joy come more naturally when the abstraction is connected with a human being, someone whose warm feelings are palpable. Maybe a blessing in itself can be a manifestation of God.
Bless someone today. It might make a difference.
(An earlier version of this essay was posted on March 20, 2010.)
1 First the new high priest, Aaron, makes a reparation-offering (חַטָּאת) and a rising-offering (עֺלָה) for himself. Then he makes a reparation-offering, a rising-offering, a grain offering (מִנְחָה), and a wholeness-offering (שְׁלָמִים) for the people. For an explanation of these four types of offerings, see my posts Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1 and Part 2.
2 Shofar (שׁוֹפָר) = a ram’s horn modified for blowing as a wind instrument.
3 Exodus/Shemot 32:1-6. See my post Ki Tissa: Heard and Not Seen.
4 Exodus/Shemot 35:4-29 and 36:2-7.
5 The Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 38a, assuming that Aaron’s first blessing of the people in Leviticus 9:22 is the same as the blessing God commands all priests to give in Numbers 6:22-23, argues that therefore the “priestly blessing” in Numbers 6:24-26 must be pronounced with the hands raised. Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) and the majority of medieval commentators agreed that Aaron spoke the “priestly blessing”.
6 Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash, Sefer Vayikra Part 1, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002, p. 289-290.
7 Sifra, quoted by W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, 1981, p. 804.
Tags: ark of the covenant, ecstatics, haftarah, King David, King Saul
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47) and the haftarah is 2 Samuel 6:1-7:17.
Being touched by God is a dangerous thing.
Uzzah, in this week’s haftarah, walks next to the cart carrying the ark of the covenant during King David’s first attempt to move it to Jerusalem.
When the oxen pulling the cart stumble, Uzzah instinctively reaches out and grabs at the ark—and God strikes Uzzah dead. (See my post Shemini & 2 Samuel: Separating Holiness.)
And David was angry that God had broken through, [making] a breach in Uzzah. (2 Samuel 6:8)
The bible does not say whether David is angry at Uzzah or at God, but he is certainly upset that he has to abort his carefully-planned procession to bring the ark to his new capital, Jerusalem. For one thing, David is still consolidating his position as Israel’s second king.
He began his career as King Saul’s loyal lieutenant, a charismatic hero in Saul’s war against the Philistines. After Saul turned against David and repeatedly tried to kill him, David fled and found refuge in Philistine territory. After Saul died, David returned and was acclaimed king of Judah, the southern part of Saul’s former kingdom, but one of Saul’s sons became king of the northern territory. Gradually David conquered that land as well, then captured the foreign stronghold of Jerusalem and made it his new capital. But not all the people of Israel supported King David. Some still viewed him as the charismatic war hero who used to lead Saul’s troops; others resented him for opposing King Saul’s son.
So King David decides to bring the ark of the covenant, the people’s most important religious object, into Jerusalem. That way his new administrative center will also be his subjects’ primary center of worship. But after God breaks through and kills Uzzah, David asks: How can it come to me, the ark of God? (2 Samuel 6:9)
David is also angry and afraid because he deliberately set up the transportation of the ark as an occasion of religious rejoicing.
And David and the whole house of Israel were laughing and playing before God, with every woodwind of cypress, and with lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. (2 Samuel 6:5)
At that time, there were companies of “prophets” among the Israelites who entered altered states in order to experience God. Their usual method, according to the two books of Samuel, included playing music and encouraging ecstatic dancing and speaking in tongues.
For example, after the prophet Samuel anoints Saul as the first king of Israel, he tells him:
… as you are coming into the town you shall encounter a company of neviyim coming down from the high shrine, preceded by lute and tambourine and flute and lyre, and they shall be mitnabim. (1 Samuel 10:5)
neviyim (נְבִיאִִים) = prophets. (From the root verb niba (נבּא) = raved; conveyed the word of God. The Hebrew Bible uses the word neviyim (singular navi (נָבִיא) for both those who go into an altered state in order to experience God, and those who hear God and serve as God’s interpreters. (See my post Haftarah for Ki Tissa—1 Kings: Ecstatic versus Rational Prophets.)
mitnabim (מִתְנַבְּאִים) = speaking in an altered state (including glossolalia), often with ecstatic movement. (Also from the root niba.)
Then the ruach of God will overpower you, vehitnabita with them, and you shall be transformed into another man. (1 Samuel 10:6)
ruach (רוּחַ) = wind, spirit, overpowering mood.
vehitnabita (וְהִתְנַבִּיתָ) = and you shall babble in an altered state, move in ecstasy.
A ruach of God does overpower Saul, but it does not transform him into a better man. It merely makes a breach without killing him, so a ruach can overpower him again and again. Most often Saul is seized with angry jealousy and tries to kill David.
Maybe Saul’s original personality simply could not be transformed so that his altered states were joyful, like those of the neviyim.
David, however, enters the narrative as a charismatic, brave, and clever young man who sizes things up and plans ahead. When things go wrong, he optimistically bounces back with a new scheme.
Although David is a musician, he does not act like the neviyim until it fits his plan to bring the ark to his new capital. And after his first attempt fails because of the death of Uzzah, David waits three months and then tries again.
Then David went and he brought up the ark of God from the house of Oveid-Edom to the City of David with rejoicing. …And David was whirling with all his might before God; and David had belted on a linen tunic. (2 Samuel 6:12, 6:14)
King David’s tunic is an eifod (אֵפוֹד), two rectangles of material fastened together at the shoulders and belted at the waist. Elsewhere in the Bible an eifod is a ritual garment worn by the high priest over his robe and underpants. David is planning to take the role of high priest as well as king. But on this occasion, he does not wear anything under his tunic.
David and all the household of Israel were bringing up the ark of God with shouts and with the sound of the ram’s horn. And the ark of God entered the City of David. And Mikhal, daughter of Saul, looked down from the window, and she saw the king, David, leaping and whirling before God, and she scorned him in her heart. (2 Samuel 6:16)
Mikhal is not only Saul’s daughter, but also one of David’s wives—arguably his most important wife at the time, since David’s marriage to her helps to legitimize his claim to Saul’s kingdom. She notices that while David is ecstatic leaping and whirling, the front piece of his tunic flaps around below the belt—revealing his lack of underpants.
Once the ark is ensconced in a tent in Jerusalem, King David makes animal offerings and blesses the people in the name of God, like a high priest. Then he hands out bread and cakes to everyone before going to his palace to bless his own household. Mikhal intercepts him at the door.
And Mikhal, daughter of Saul, went out to meet David and she said: How he was honored today, the king of Israel—who exposed himself today to the eyes of the slave-women of his servants as one of the worthless exposes himself! (2 Samuel 6:20)
And David said to Mikhal: Before God—who chose me instead of your father and instead of any of his household, to appoint me sovereign over the people of God, over Israel—before God I will laugh and play; and I will be dishonored even more than this, and I will be debased in my own eyes! But with the slave-women of whom you speak, with them I will be honored. (2 Samuel 6:21)
King David is claiming that he knows proper behavior according to members of the ruling class—and that nevertheless, he will behave in the way that wins the love of the common people. There are times when a king is better off dancing with a flapping tunic—as long as the dancing proves the king has been touched by God.
Religious ecstasy did not help Israel’s first king. King Saul lived in the moment, and if the spirit of God touched him, he acted, for good or for bad.
King David, on the other hand, always planned ahead. He whirled ecstatically in front of the ark because a joyful and over-the-top religious procession was part of his plan for uniting his people.
Sometimes it is good to get emotional over God. I have led Shabbat services with a sequence of songs designed to inspire and elevate people into joy, and even dancing.
But there must be a safe container for ecstasy. Samuel did not realize that Saul was not a safe container for the spirit of God. And Mikhal did not realize that David had created a procession that would be a safe container for religious ecstasy.
May we all be blessed with intuitive knowledge of when it is good to let go, and when it is better to restrain oneself.
Tags: Leviticus, Temple in Jerusalem, torah portion, wine
by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
In this week’s portion, Shemini (Eighth), Aaron and his four sons complete the eighth day of their ordination as priests by presenting an animal offering at the new altar. God sends forth a miraculous fire that consumes everything on the altar, and all the people shout with joy and bow down to the ground. Then Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring unauthorized incense into the Tent of Meeting, and God sends forth a miraculous fire that consumes them. (See my earlier post, Shemini: Strange Fire.)
Moses gives instructions regarding removing the bodies and mourning. Then God tells Aaron:
Wine or sheikhar do not drink, you or your sons with you, when you come into the Tent of Meeting, and you will not die—a decree forever for your generations—and to distinguish between the holy and the ordinary, and between the ritually-impure and the ritually -pure; and to teach the Children of Israel all the decrees that God, your god, has spoken through Moses. (Leviticus/Vayikra 10:9-11)
sheikhar (שֵׁכָר) = strong drink. (From the root verb shakhar, שׁכר = was drunk, became intoxicated.)
Sheikhar is not liquor or fortified wine, since distilling was not inventing until the fourth century B.C.E. The alcoholic drinks available to the ancient Israelites were wine from grapes, wine from other fruits, and beer from grain. Judging by other Biblical passages containing the word sheikhar, the word might mean any of these fermented drinks, if they happened to be especially strong.
The Torah distinguishes between new wine, chemer (חֶמֶר), and old wine, called shemer (שֶׁמֶר) or sheikhar. New wine has only progressed through the first stage of fermentation; old wine has fermented for at least 40 days (according to the Talmud, Sanhedrin 70a) and has more alcoholic content. (The Torah also refers to both new and old wine as yayin (יַיִן), which simply means “wine”.)
Does God give Aaron the injunction above shortly after Nadav and Avihu’s fatal error because they were drunk when they brought the unauthorized incense? The commentary is divided. Either way, God states the reason why priests must not drink on duty: alcohol decreases reasoning and discernment, and therefore would interfere with several of the priests’ duties: judging whether something is holy, judging whether something or someone is ritually pure, and teaching the laws correctly.
However, the Torah does not banish wine altogether from the sanctuary or temple. Priests are required to give offerings of wine to God, poured out as libations on the altar. The book of Numbers/Bemidbar even specifies strong wine for God:
And you shall say to them: This is the fire-offering you shall bring close to Hashem: male yearling lambs, unblemished, a pair for the day, as a perpetual rising-offering. The one male lamb you shall do in the morning, and the second male lamb you shall do in the evening. … And he shall pour out a fourth of a hin for the one male lamb, on the holy place, to provide a libation, a drink-offering of sheikhar for Hashem. (Numbers/Bemidbar 28:3-4, 7)
During the time of the second temple in Jerusalem, the wine libation was poured into a silver bowl with a hole in the bottom, located near the southwest corner of the altar. The wine flowed down through the hole and continued through the altar into the ground underneath. The wine of a libation had to be be entirely poured out; Jews did not follow the Greek practice of pouring a libation and then drinking the rest of the wine.
On the other hand, it was acceptable for non-priestly worshipers to drink their own wine in front of the sanctuary.
You must definitely tithe all the yield of your planting, what comes out of the field, year by year. And you shall eat in front of God, your god … so that you will learn to be in awe of God, your god, all the time. And if the road is too long for you … Then you shall give silver, and you shall bundle up the silver in your hand, and you shall go to the place that God, your god, will choose. And you may give the silver for what your nefesh craves: cattle, or sheep, or wine, or sheikhar, or anything that your nefesh asks you for. And you shall eat it there in front of God, your god, and you shall rejoice, you and your household. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 14:22-26)
nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = appetite; the soul that animates the body.
Here the Torah seems to approve of imbibing (as well as feasting) as an aid to feeling both joy and awe when serving God. Yet in the first book of Samuel/Shmuel, the high priest Eli criticizes Hannah for coming to the temple when she is, apparently, drunk.
And Channah, she was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard. And Eli considered her leshikorah. And Eli said to her: How long will you go on making yourself drunk? Remove your wine from over yourself!
But Channah replied, and she said: No, my lord, I am a woman of heavy spirit, and I have not drunk wine nor sheikhar, but I have poured out my nefesh before God. (1 Samuel 13-15)
leshikorah (לְשִׁכּוֹרָה) = to be drunk.
By pouring out her soul before God, Channah is, in effect, making her own libation offering. And she is dedicating something stronger than old wine.
Perhaps the priests must avoid drinking at the sanctuary not only to keep their minds sharp, but also to serve God with appropriate levels of joy and awe, avoiding emotional excess. Their libation offerings could be interpreted as pouring out their own emotionality, emptying themselves in order to become holy vessels for their work.
When I lead prayer services, the people in front of me seem to find more comfort, or insight, or elevation, when I manage to step away from the emotions that I walked in with, but retain my rational alertness. At those times, I find myself empty and available for inspiration, yet also able to notice when I need to change the volume or tempo of a song, to skip something I had planned, to say something different, to invite comment or to move back into song.
If only I could do that every time!
Next time, I will imagine pouring out all my sheikhar, my old, strong wine, in a libation to God before the service begins. Then maybe I can be both clear and clear-headed in the sanctuary that it is my duty to help create.
Tags: ark of the covenant, holy place, King David, Leviticus, torah portion, Vayikra
Aaron, who becomes the high priest on the eighth day of his ordination, hears directly from God in this week’s Torah portion, Shemini (Eighth). God tells him that priests must not drink on duty, so they can perform two important jobs:
Lehavdil between hakodesh and the ordinary, and between the ritually-impure and the ritually-pure. And to teach the children of Israel all the decrees that God spoke to them through Moses. (Leviticus 10:10-11)
lehavdil (לְהַבְדֹּיל) = to make a distinction, to separate, to segregate, to distinguish
hakodesh (הַקֹּדֶשׁ) = the holy, the sacred; everything that is dedicated to God.
In the Hebrew Bible, objects, places, and days can all be holy, if they are reserved for serving God.
The holiest object is the ark, which holds two stone tablets that God wrote on at the top of Mount Sinai. When the ark is inside the innermost chamber of the sanctuary, the holy of holies, God’s presence manifests in the empty space right above its lid. No one but Moses and the high priest may see the ark when it is inside the holy of holies.
According to the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, when the ark is transported to a new location, it is draped with three layers of coverings to protect people from seeing it. No one may touch it except for the priests carrying it by its poles. It is so holy that touching or seeing it would be almost like touching or seeing God.
The haftarah reading for this week’s Torah portion is a selection from the second book of Samuel which describes how the ark is transported to Jerusalem from the house of Avinadav, near the Philistine border. The Philistines had captured the ark in battle, then sent it back across the border. A descendant of Avinadav named Elazar was anointed as a priest to take care of the ark. By the time King David arrives, 20 years later, the men of the house of Avinadav who serve the ark are Achio and Uzza.
They mounted the ark of God on a new cart, and they carried it away from the house of Avinadav, which was on the hill. Uzza and Achio, sons of Avinadav, were guiding the new cart. (2 Samuel 6:3)
Achio walks in front of the ox-cart, and Uzza has the honor of walking beside the ark. The procession includes King David and thousands of Israelites dancing to the sound of musical instruments. Then the oxen pulling the cart stumble.
They came as far as the threshing-place of Nakhon; then Uzza reached out to the ark of God, and he grabbed at it, because the cattle let [the cart] go off by itself. And God’s anger flared up against Uzza, and struck him down there, over the heedlessness. And he died there beside the ark of God. (2 Samuel 6:6-7)
While Uzza is accompanying the ark, he is serving as a priest, who must make a distinction between the holy and the ordinary. His impulsive action, however well-meant, fails to distinguish between the perilously holy ark and an ordinary ox-cart load.
King David sends the ark to a nearby house, and tries a second procession to Jerusalem three months later.
David was whirling around with all his might before God; and David had belted on a linen efod. (2 Samuel 6:14)
efod (אֵפוֹד) = a tunic or cuirass with the front and back tied together, worn by the high priest as part of his ritual costume.
David is dancing in front of the ark, but the ark is so holy that the Torah says he is dancing before God. His whirling around with all his might reminds me of the prophets who speak in ecstasy in Exodus and the two books of Samuel. Although David is wearing a priest’s efod, he acts more like a prophet filled with the spirit of God—until the ark has been placed inside the tent in Jerusalem.
Then King David soberly plays the role of high priest, performing all the rituals without a hitch.
They brought the ark of God and set it up in its place inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and David brought up rising-offerings before God, and the wholeness-offerings. And when David finished bringing up the rising-offerings and the wholeness offerings, then he blessed the people in the name of the God of Armies. (2 Samuel 6:17-18)
David treats the ark as holy in two ways: first as a prophet filled with the spirit of God, second as a high priest conducting ritual. Both responses to holiness are acceptable in the bible, at the appropriate time and place.
When King David goes home, one of his wives criticizes him for exposing his private parts while dancing. She is concerned about what people will think of him. But what occurs to me is that David is wearing the priest’s efod without underpants. The books of Exodus and Leviticus require priests to wear linen underpants while they are on duty, so they will not be exposed.
This seems like one clear failure to distinguish the holy from the ordinary. But God overlooks a few of David’s infractions earlier in the bible, and God overlooks this one as well.
The ark was lost with the fall of the first temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. The innermost chamber of the second temple was empty, but it was still called the holy of holies, and treated with awe and reverence. The high priest still entered it only once a year, on Yom Kippur.
Since the fall of the second temple in 70 C.E., Jews have made do with objects and places of lesser holiness. Instead of an ark, we have Torah scrolls, which are unrolled for everyone to see. Instead of a sanctuary with a holy of holies, we have gravesites and the broken temple wall in Jerusalem.
The most holy things left for us are holy days: feast and fast days every year, and Shabbat every week. On Saturday nights, we make a havdallah, a separation, between the holy day of Shabbat that has ended and the ordinary days of the week to come. The havdallah blessing concludes with some of the words in God’s instructions to Aaron:
Blessed are you, God, hamavdil between hakodesh and the ordinary.
Hamavdil means “the one who makes a distinction”, and hakodesh means “the holy”. The world God created includes a distinction between the holy and the ordinary, which we must discern and act upon.
I think treating a day as holy is harder than treating an object or a place as holy. The sun sets and rises on Shabbat the way it does on any other day; the only difference is what we do. Even if we try to dedicate every moment of Shabbat to serving God, we still have to do some things in the realm of the ordinary.
Maybe we can be like King David, and serve God with enough enthusiasm to make up for serving God imperfectly.
Still, one question remains in our modern age: What counts as serving God?
The death of someone close to you, even after a long illness, is hard to accept. A sudden death is like an earthquake. But what if the sudden death came neither from an accident nor from a gun, but in a miraculous fire straight from God?
That is how Aaron’s two older sons die in this week’s Torah portion, Shemini (“Eighth”). Aaron and his four sons undergo an eight-day sanctification and ordination, along with the altar of the newly-assembled mikdash (“holy place”). At the conclusion of the ritual, a miraculous fire rushes out from the Holy of Holies and consumes everything on the altar. All the Israelites shout with joy and prostrate themselves. The five newly-ordained priests no doubt rejoice as well in this manifestation of God’s glory. Then Aaron’s older sons, Nadav and Avihu, grab their incense-burners and bring “strange fire” to God. (See my earlier blog, “Shemini: Strange Fire”.) Another miraculous fire rushes out from the Holy of Holies and consumes them. But their bodies remain sufficiently intact for their cousins to drag them out of the sanctuary by their tunics.
Then Moses said to Aaron: It is what God spoke, saying: Through those close to me, I will be proven holy; and in the presence of all the people I will be glorified. And Aaron, vayidom. (Leviticus/Vayikra 10:3)
vayidom = he was silent; he was motionless. (Two other verbs from the same root, דּמם , mean “to wail” and “to be devastated”.)
Moses seems to be quoting God, but when did God say that? The Babylonian Talmud points to part of God’s instructions about using the altar in the book of Exodus/Shemot:
I shall meet there with the Children of Israel, and it shall be made holy bikevodi. (Exodus/Shemot 29:43)
bikevodi = through My glory
Since early Hebrew writing had no vowels, the rabbis of the Talmud sometimes offered alternative readings of the words whose vowels later became codified. For this sentence, the Talmud suggests:
Do not read bikevodi [through My glory], but bikevodai [through My honored ones]. This is what the Holy One, blessed be He said to Moses, but they did not know its meaning until the sons of Aaron died. (Zavachim 115b)
In other words, God told Moses that the altar would be made holy through God’s nearest and dearest. (The Talmud does not address the question of why the strange death of Nadav and Avihu counts as sanctification.) According to Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitchaki), Moses elaborated: “Aaron, my brother, I knew that this House would be sanctified by those who are cherished by God, and I thought it would be either through me or through you. Now I see that these [Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu] are greater than I and you.”
In this reading, Moses is assuring his brother Aaron that God did not kill his sons because they were unworthy; God killed his sons because they were so wonderful. This reminds me of when I was in first grade, and a Catholic friend of mine solemnly told me that the happiest day of her life would be when her husband died—because she knew he would go straight to heaven, and she knew she would be unselfish enough to rejoice. (I thought my friend was crazy.) But the religion in the Torah has no concept of an afterlife, except for vague references to an underworld called She-ol where nothing happens. Whatever Moses intends, he is not saying that God has suddenly rewarded Nadav and Avihu for their virtue by transporting their souls to heaven.
Most Jewish commentators agree that God is punishing rather than rewarding Nadav and Avihu. After all, the two men brought “strange fire” into the new Tent of Meeting without authorization, so they were guilty of at least careless over-enthusiasm, and at worst egotism and disdain for their elders. But did they deserve death for their mistake? The 18th-century rabbi Naphtali Herz Weisel wrote that while humans tend to be lenient with the people they love the most, God does the opposite: God overlooks a minor infraction committed by an ordinary person, but severely punishes even a tiny error by a leader who was divinely chosen.
The implication is that God’s killing of Nadav and Avihu for making a small mistake proves that the two new priests were extraordinarily holy and close to God. This is how Moses tries to console Aaron. And Aaron responds to this attempt with silence. Some commentary says that Aaron was silent because he accepted Moses’ explanation. Indeed, I can imagine that if you were afraid your children had died committing a crime, it would be some comfort to know that they had only made a minor error in judgment, and they were good people at the end.
Other commentary brings in other possible meanings of vayidom. In the 15th century, Isaac Abravanel wrote that Aaron was not consoled; he wailed at first, then became silent and motionless as his heart turned to stone. Modern commentators add that Aaron was in shock; we might say his soul was “devastated”.
And Aaron’s silence continues. In the Torah, the acceptable response to the death of a family member is to wail, tear your clothing, and untie your hair. You are supposed to show your grief in public. But before Aaron, or his two younger sons, Elazar and Itamar, can begin to dishevel themselves, Moses stops them.
Moses said to Aaron, and to his sons Elazar and Itamar: Don’t let the hair hang loose on your heads, and don’t tear your clothes; then you will not die, nor will God become furious at the whole community. But your brothers, all the house of Israel, will bewail the burning that God burned. And do not go out of the opening of the Tent of Meeting, lest you die, for the oil of anointing of God is upon you. And they did as Moses spoke. (Leviticus 10:5-7)
Everyone in the whole camp of Israel is expected to mourn for Nadav and Avihu—except for the three surviving anointed priests. Later in the book of Leviticus, in chapter 21, a high priest is forbidden to grow his hair long, tear his garments, or come near any dead body. The other priests may engage in mourning practices, but only for their closest family members (including sons and brothers), and only when they are not on duty. However, this exception does not apply to the newly anointed Elazar and Itamar. Since they are not allowed to leave the opening of the Tent of Meeting, they are like high priests, unable to go off-duty.
Other ancient religions in the region had priests who specialized in serving and summoning the dead. But for the priests of the Israelites, any contact with the dead was a contamination, making them unable to do their jobs until they had been purified. True, their jobs included a great deal of contact with dead animals, not to mention diagnoses of skin diseases. Nevertheless, it was important for priests to inspire the people to become “holy”, to worship God with joy as well as devotion. In order to do this, priests were expected to look joyful and devout as they served God, no matter what they felt inside.
20th-century rabbi Elie Munk went further, and wrote that the priests had to maintain a joyful state of mind in order to give blessings to the people. They could not let themselves mourn on either the outside or the inside.
Today we would call that going into denial. Yet it remains true that there are times when we must all rise to the occasion, pretending to be more serene than we feel inside, in order to do some important job—maybe to take care of someone else in need. The danger lies in always being “on”—never leaving the opening of the tent of meeting.
May we all be blessed with both the strength to rise above our feelings at times, in order to serve others, and the strength to remove ourselves from service at times, in order to do the mourning we need for our own souls.
Four sons. We have completed the week of Passover/Pesach, with its ritual commemorating the exodus from Egypt. For at least 1,500 years this ritual has included a description of the “four sons” —four kinds of children the parent must teach about the exodus.
Now I am preparing to go to Ashland, Oregon, for a weekend learning from Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, and I will be telling a new Torah monologue inspired by the Torah portion of the week, Shemini (“Eighth”). In this portion, Aaron and his four sons emerge from seven days of seclusion after Moses anointed them as priests, and engage in the final ritual inauguration of the mishkan, the dwelling-place for God. Only two of Aaron’s four sons survive the day.
The four sons in the Passover reading are based on four places in the Torah where a father tells his son the reason for performing the Passover ritual. Three of these answers are preceded by a question by a hypothetical son (Deuteronomy 6:20, Exodus 12:26, and Exodus 13:14). The fourth place, Exodus 13:8, merely implies it is the answer to a child’s question. The rabbis of the first several centuries C.E. took these lines out of context in order to describe four kinds of children:
the “wise son” who wants to know all the rules;
the “wicked son” who thinks Passsover has nothing to do with him;
the “simple son” who merely asks “What is this?”;
and the son who does not even know how to ask.
In the Torah, all four answers are variations on “Because God freed us from slavery in Egypt”. The answers in the Torah are clearly addressed to the descendants of the Israelites in general, while the elaborations in the Passover ritual refer to four general types of children. I have never seen a haggadah (a book telling the Passover ritual from start to finish) that connects the “four sons” with Aaron’s four sons. But next year, I hope to write one.
Two years ago I analyzed what happened to Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, in my blog “Shemini: Strange Fire”. As I wrote my new Torah monologue the past week, I became interested in the psychology of the two younger sons, the survivors who were not consumed by the fire from God: Elazar and Itamar.
In birth order, the sons of the high priest Aaron and his wife, Elisheva, are:
Nadav = Willing Donor
Avihu = He Is My Father
Elazar = God Helps
Itamar = Island of Date Palms
Although the Torah gives reasons for the names of many of the people in its stories, it is silent about these four. Here is what I imagine:
Elisheva had a dream when each of her four sons was born in Egypt. She saw her firstborn walking toward God’s throne, bringing God a glorious gift. So she named him Nadav, “Willing Donor”. And Nadav lived up to his name. Whenever he learned another way to worship the Holy One, he threw his whole soul into it. When the men asked his father, Aaron, to make an idol for them to worship, Nadav said, “No, don’t do it! Our god only appears in fire, or in a pillar of cloud. You can’t drag that holiness down into mere metal!” Later, when holy fire poured forth from God and consumed the animals on the new altar before the mishkan (the new, authorized dwelling-place for God), Nadav picked up his fire-pan in an ecstasy of desire to give his soul to the true god, the god of fire. And his soul was consumed.
When her second son was born, Elisheva dreamed he was toddling after Aaron, mimicking his father’s walk. So she named him Avihu, “He is My Father”. And Avihu lived up to his name. From his first step, he was always imitating Daddy. When the men asked Aaron for an idol, Avihu said, “Yes, do it! Our god is so great, He can appear anywhere, even in an idol.” And when Aaron made the Golden Calf, Avihu built the fire to melt the gold. Later, Avihu watched his father pick up an incense-pan and follow Moses into the inner sanctuary of the new mishkan. Both men came out and blessed the people, and then a river of holy fire poured over the altar. Avihu took his own pan and walked toward the Holy of Holies. And the fire from God consumed his soul.
When her third son was born, Elisheva saw a shepherd’s staff moving all by itself, pointing out hazards along the road. And she saw her baby following the staff carefully, and walking in safety. So she named him Elazar, “God Helps”. And Elazar lived up to his name. He took his job as a Levite, and then as a priest, very seriously, and he never acted without checking to get the details right. When the men asked Aaron for an idol, Elazar said, “No, don’t do anything without Moses’ approval. And if we have to spend the rest of our lives waiting for Moses to come back down the mountain, so be it.” Later, when holy fire poured over the new altar, Elazar reached for his fire-pan, wanting to give something, anything, to the all-powerful God. But he drew his hand back, because Moses had not commanded it. And he lived to become the high priest after Aaron died.
When her fourth son was born, Elisheva was exhausted. She didn’t dream about anybody. She just had a vision of an island covered with palm trees, date palms. So she named the baby Itamar, “Island of Dates”. And little Itamar turned out to be a sweet and loving boy. When the men asked Aaron for an idol, Itamar said nothing, because he did not understand enough about God—and because he was so much younger, he was not used to being listened to. Later, when holy fire poured over the new altar, Itamar could not even remember where he had left his fire-pan, and he felt no impulse to bring incense to God. He just wanted to survive the awesome spectacle, and learn his new priestly duties, and make his own life in whatever free time was left to him.
The Torah monologue I’ll tell in Ashland is from the viewpoint of Itamar. But maybe next year I will write another Torah monologue, from the viewpoint of Elisheva.
And next year, God willing, I will write a haggadah for Passover in which the four sons of Aaron and Elisheva are the four sons of Passover. But I won’t list them by birth order. Elazar will be the “wise son”, the one who wants to learn all the rules, so he will make no mistakes in his service to God.
Nadav. as I imagine him, is like the “wicked son”, the one who thinks the religion of his fathers has nothing to do with him. He not really wicked, since he willingly gives himself to God. But he does not listen to his father Aaron or his uncle Moses; he brings his own “strange fire” to God.
Avihu, in my book, is the “simple son”, awed by all the ceremony. All gods are exciting to him, and he is just as willing to worship the Golden Calf as his father was to make it. When Aaron repents and commits to the god of Moses, so does Avihu. But without real understanding, he flings himself into the impulse of the moment.
Itamar, Aaron’s youngest son, is like the son who does not know how to ask. He does not understand the new family business of priesthood, but he is willing to learn it. He does not understand the impulse to give everything to God, but he understands the desire to give to other human beings.
I have to admit I am more like Nadav than Elazar, making up my own mind regardless of what my my predecessors taught. So I had better be careful when I play with fire. At least I am not impulsive, the way I see Avihu. Most of all, I can identify with Itamar, the novice who does not even know what to ask, and who tries to serve both God and his own life and loved ones.
Which son are you like?
(This blog was first posted on April 14, 2010.)
And Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aharon, each took his incense pan, and they put fire in them, and they put incense upon it. Then they brought near before God strange fire, that he had not commanded them. A fire went forth from before God, and it consumed them, and they died in front of God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 10:1-2)
Nadav = generous one, spontaneous giver
Avihu = my father is he
The mishkan (the Israelites’ portable sanctuary, a dwelling-place for God) has finally been assembled. Moses has carried out an elaborate ritual to make his brother Aaron and Aaron’s four sons priests. These first five priests of Israel have spent seven days in the middle courtyard of the sanctuary, in front of the curtained entrance to the Holy of Holies.
This week’s Torah portion, Shemini (Eighth) begins on the eighth day, when Moses summons Aaron and his sons, and has the elders bring forward the first sacrifices to be made on the new altar by the new priests. Moses announces that after these sacrifices, the glory of God will appear to everyone.
Aaron performs the series of sacrifices, and his four sons assist him. Aaron blesses the people. Then Moses takes Aaron into the Tent of Meeting, the Holy of Holies. When they emerge again, they bless the people together. Then the glory of God appears, and “a fire went forth from before God, and it consumed” the animal parts on the altar. Presumably the fire comes from the Holy of Holies, and miraculously travels through the curtains and the middle courtyard without burning anything, before consuming the sacrifices in a blaze of glory. The people shout with joy and fall on their faces.
In the midst of the rejoicing, Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, pick up their incense pans. Nobody has instructed them to do so; each one is moved by his own impulse. They put fire, in this case glowing embers, in their pans, and add incense. Then they bring “strange fire” before God. And “a fire went forth from before God, and it consumed them.” The Torah even uses the same Hebrew words for both occasions of divine fire.
What happened? The commentary offers too many different theories to list them all in this blog. Here’s what I think happened.
Nadav and Avihu acted on impulse instead of asking for instructions—even though Moses has issued warnings that the whole sanctuary is a dangerous place where the priests risk death unless they follow instructions meticulously. They probably took their incense pans all the way into the Holy of Holies—and later the Torah says that although Moses goes in to speak with God, no one else may enter that innermost chamber except the high priest, once a year. Nadav and Avihu bring their “strange fire” into the holiest place as an act of worship. But their impulsive violation means death.
Both Nadav and Avihu (unlike their two younger brothers, who stick to the instructions and live) have already beheld God’s feet on a pavement of sapphire (Exodus 24:10) halfway up Mount Sinai. After an experience like that, it’s hard to go back to just seeing the usual pillar of cloud and fire. They’re both hungry for more contact with God.
They see that when Aaron finishes the sacrifices and blesses the people from the altar, no manifestation of God occurs. But after Moses takes Aaron into the Tent of Meeting, the Holy of Holies, the miraculous fire of God comes forth and lands on the altar.
Clearly the way to bring about an encounter with God is to enter the Holy of Holies.
Nadav, whose name means a generous or spontaneous giver, decides to give himself as a nedavah, a spontaneous gift to God. He is willing, even eager, to let his own ego go up in smoke in order to be united with God. He picks up his incense pan.
Avihu, whose name means “he is my father”, is also carried away with the ecstasy of the moment. He sees his brother heading toward the innermost chamber with an incense pan, and he grabs his own pan. He doesn’t stop to think that he’s risking his life. He’s like his father, Aaron, who made the golden calf when the people asked for an idol, without thinking through the consequences. (The traditional explanation of Avihu’s name is that God is like a father to him, but I think the evidence points to Avihu’s actual father.) Now as Avihu wants to encounter God in the Holy of Holies, the way his father Aaron just did.
Although the two brothers act from different impulses, they both bring “strange fire” before God. Symbolically, this fire is their passion: Nadav’s burning desire to give himself to God, and Avihu’s burning desire to experience more divine ecstasy. Their consuming desires are met with a consuming fire from God.
Aaron’s two younger brothers, Elazar and Itamar, stick to doing the job God has given them. They are rewarded with long lives and many descendants who also serve as priests.
Is it better to die in an ecstasy of worship, hurtling your soul into the unknown? Or is it better to keep your feet on the ground and pay attention to the demands of this world, even as you keep your sense of awe?
I believe we are all in this world for a reason, with a job to do, even if we don’t know what it is. I’d rather be like Elazar and Itamar, and hope for a long life of service in this world, doing my work as well and as carefully I can. (But I’m glad I wasn’t given the work of a priest!)