Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47
The great tragedy of Shemini is the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu. Here is how Torah describes their very first day “on the job” as priests of Israel:
And the sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, took each of them his fire-pan and put fire in it and placed incense upon it and brought forward alien fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. (Lev. 10:1-2)
To put it mildly, this seems a little harsh. Their great transgression was that they offered “alien fire,” meaning fire that God did not command. Why would they do this? Apparently, they were so moved by zeal for God that they went beyond what God actually commanded. Why is this so wrong? What possible lesson does Torah intend for us here?
Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik taught that there are two different approaches to religious observance, which he called Jewish and pagan. In the Jewish approach, we are guided not by emotion, but by the discipline of our covenantal obligations to God. Over time, through the discipline of practice, we gain deeper and more fulfilling spiritual meaning and sustenance. The Jewish path is, in his view, one in which our actions are limited by the boundaries of the commandments. The pagan approach, is the polar opposite to Judaism. It begins will zeal and excitement, which leads us to change our practice to suit our emotions. Over time, he argues, this approach ends with disillusionment. (Chumash Mesurat HaRav, Lev. 10:1-2)
I think there is some truth to his argument. However, rigidity in observance does not come without its own pitfalls. There is another lesson to be learned from the tragedy of Nadab and Abihu. Zeal can easily lead to zealotry, which is but another name for religious extremism. Jewish tradition argues that God wants us to take a middle path. God requires our devotion, but within limits. When we go beyond those limits we dance with the possibility of becoming extremists, of becoming filled with the self-righteousness that leads us to disapprove of and eventually to demonize everyone who is not like us. This can happen not only when we go beyond the letter of the law in our practice, but when we make the letter of the law so rigid as to forget the spirit of the law.
Nadab and Abihu teach us that true d’vekut, our ability to be one with God, requires us to dance a delicate dance, with pitfalls and dangers on every side. This is not to say that we should not try. Rather, the opposite is true. It’s just that we should approach the path with confidence in the direction it leads us, and with humility to help us stay on course.
Leviticus 6:1 – 8:3
Recently, I learned that my favorite modern Hanukkah song was a personal manifesto of Jewish identity. For years, I have sung “Light One Candle” by Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary) without really understanding Yarrow’s intent, which takes us far beyond the celebration of Hanukkah. “Don’t let the light go out!” is the repeated refrain, and as I sung it again last week (just for kicks) I was immediately reminded of Tzav.
“A perpetual fire shall burn upon the altar. It shall not go out.” (Lev. 6:6)
Peter Yarrow is not a religious Jew, but he is an ethical and cultural Jew – and he chose the words “don’t let the light go out” as a central concept that reflects his identity as a Jew.
This truly takes my breath away. It begs the question, in an age when the Temple no longer stands and sacrifices are far in our distant past, what is the light for us today? What is the fire that, as a nation of priests, we must continue to feed? We will each answer the question in our own ways. For now, at the very least, we can enjoy listening to Yarrow’s answer.
Leviticus 1:1 – 5:2
Open the book VaYikra, and enter the world of sacrificial Judaism. This is the priestly book, the book of the korbonot – the offerings through which Israel drew closer to God. According to tradition, young Jewish students begin their studies here, in the middle of the Torah, rather than with “In the Beginning…”
Yet we live in a world where the sacrificial cult has not existed for almost 2000 years. Many Jews today are uncomfortable with the idea of offering sacrifices, considering the practice barbaric. The Reform movement completely excised the Musaf service, which contains prayers for the restoration of the Temple and the sacrificial cult, from the Reform Siddur (prayer book), and removed sacrificial language from the R’tzei prayer (which in the original form asks God to accept both our worship and our fire offerings).
Of all of the books of Torah, this one seems the farthest removed from our lives today – at least on the surface. As one of my teachers once quipped, “Hey, when it comes to Leviticus we need all the help we can get!”
This is where we start our studies?
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, one of the great Orthodox thinkers of the 20th Century wrote: “The precept of sacrifice is a central motif in Judaism. To live in accord with God’s word is identical with living a sacrificial life. To act morally is synonymous with sacrificial action.” (Chumash Mesoras HaRav – Lev. 1:2). While Judaism condemns human sacrifice as murder, Rabbi Soloveitchik taught that on a spiritual level we need to offer everything we are to God. Therefore, prayer is properly understood as a form of sacrifice. This makes Jewish spirituality a paradox: only by negating our egos, our senses of self, can we reach our fullest potential and fulfillment.
Equating prayer with sacrifice is an idea I find both challenging and compelling. Prayer as sacrifice means asking not for what we want, but rather, for what God needs. It means taking our own desires and sublimating them to God’s will.
“May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to You, Adonai, my Rock and my Redeemer.” (Psalm 19:15)
Exodus 38:21 – 40:38
Pekudei concludes the book of Exodus with a beginning rather than an end. How Jewish! This week we read the description of the completed mishkan (tabernacle) and the descent of God’s Presence upon it as an impenetrable cloud by day and a fire by night, “in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout their journeys.” (Ex. 40:38)
Our parasha opens with a rather strange turn of phrase: the mishkan is called mishkan ha-eidut. (Ex. 38:21) Some translators call this “the Tabernacle of the Covenant” or “of the Pact.” That would make a lot of sense given the context of the verse. However the word eidut literally translates as ‘witnessing’ or ‘testimony’ and is not at all related to the Hebrew word for covenant (brit). Why, at this of all moments, does the text read mishkan ha-eidut?
According to Rabbi Shimon, the mishkan itself stands as witness, proclaiming to every person that God has forgiven the sin of the Golden Calf. (Midrash, Shemot Rabbah, 51:4) While the tradition emphasizes that this message was delivered to the world, I like to think that it was intended especially for us.
The mishkan is, among other things, the place more than any other where the Israelites encountered the reality of God as they wandered through the Wilderness. It was commanded from on high, but built by people.
We, like the ancient Israelites, regularly fall into the trap of worshipping the work of our hands – our own ‘golden calfs.’ This is the path of hevel, of futility and emptiness. The mishkan for God in our midst is a testimony – both of our errors and of God’s forgiveness. This is not only the message of the High Holy Days, but of every day.
We can repeat the mistakes of the past, or learn from them and return to our Source, using our hands to create not idols but sanctuaries in time and space.
Exodus 35:1 – 38:20
Jewish religious pluralism took a huge step forward recently, when the Israeli cabinet decided to establish an egalitarian section at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. While it may not seem like a big deal on the surface, the ramifications of this change are enormous. Israel, as a Jewish State, has no separation between “church” and “state.” Although Israel remains committed to freedom of religion, there is a surprising caveat: freedom of religion is guaranteed to all people except the Jews. Jewish religious practice has been strictly governed by the ministry of religion and the chief rabbis, which is to say, by the ultra-orthodox. As a result, the government of Israel has funded orthodox institutions and defined non-orthodox communities as outside the pale and therefore illegitimate. Creating a pluralistic section for worship at the Kotel establishes for the first time in the history of Israel, formal recognition of non-orthodox Judaism.
Sadly, several prominent religious and political leaders in Israel have reacted with venom to the change. One leading ultra-orthodox rabbi even went so far as to label Reform Jews as idolaters rather than Jews.
Fortunately, this week’s torah portion is VaYak’el. The word “VaYak’hel” means “and he gathered.” Our portion begins with Moses gathering all of the people together to build the mishkan, the sanctuary where sacrifices will be offered and where God will dwell in the midst of the camp.
Rashi, the great rabbinical commentator, said that this happened the day after Yom Kippur. Why then? Yom Kippur is a time for self-examination and spiritual renewal, a time to repair our broken relationships with each other and with God. If we are successful in this process, then we might actually have a chance of truly being gathered together. Only then can we bring God into the center of our community.
In the midrashic tradition our rabbis taught that the Temple, the more permanent replacement for the mishkan, was destroyed precisely because of the divisions and even hatreds that had developed within our community. (Talmud Bavli, Gittin 55b – 56b, Lamentations Rabbah 4:3)
Establishing an egalitarian section at the Wall, the holiest place in the world for Jews, enlarges the size of our tent; it gathers the entire religious community of Israel together.
Those who choose to reject greater Jewish inclusion, who instead decide to spit venom and sow division under the guise of piety, would do well to remember this lesson.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras