Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47
This is a Shabbat of stark contrast (at least in comparison to the festival of Passover, which we just concluded – I hope – with joy). In my last blog, I wrote about how Passover includes three things we love more than anything else: home hospitality, good food, and storytelling. However, we don’t just tell stories at our seders, we talk – a lot! Passover, without question, is among our most social holidays. Shemini, by contrast, is marked by silence. To put it in more contemporary terms, we now find ourselves in the midst of the transition between the “unmute” and “mute” settings of our spiritual lives.
We know why we talk during Passover. Why is Shemini characterized by silence? The story is not an easy one. Shemini describes what should have been a time of great rejoicing for Israel. After months of hard work and careful preparation, the time has come for the final dedication of the mishkan – the tented sanctuary where God would dwell in the midst of the people in the Wilderness. All of Israel is present to witness this remarkable beginning, holding their breath in the hope that God would accept their offerings and inhabit the mishkan.
At first everything not only goes well, but quite frankly, is the stuff of legend. Aaron offers a sin offering for himself and his family, and then proceeds to bless the people that their offerings will be acceptable to heaven. Then, miraculously, God’s glory is revealed to all as the people’s offering is consumed on the altar by a bolt of flame from heaven.
If only the story stopped there.
Two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, decided on the spot to improvise their own incense offerings. The Torah does not share their reasons but is clear that this was not part of the scripted ceremony, and as such, was unwelcome and deeply problematic. How do we know this? They, like the offering of the Israelites, are also consumed by fire from heaven.
Can you imagine?
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell writes:
“Aaron has no response – he is silent. What can he say? In that single moment, his hopes and dreams for his family working together to create holiness, his hopes and dreams are destroyed. The intensity of his joy is undone in a crashing moment of sorrow and despair.”
This is a story Aaron does not want to tell – or hear. His grief is complete. There is no room for words in this moment.
If only the story stopped there.
Moses, seemingly caught up entirely in the continuing act of consecrating the mishkan, instead of expressing his own grief or offering condolences to his brother, actually chastised Aaron for not completing the prescribed ritual and prohibited Aaron and his family from observing the traditional rites of mourning. How could Moses do such a thing? Aaron, normally a steady level headed person, let his brother Moses have a piece of his mind.
What did Moses do?
He responded with silence: the silence of assent. Moses heard Aaron’s words and his pain, and his own insensitivity in asking the unthinkable. Like Aaron, Moses could only respond with silence.
In the midst of our own struggles today, we might remember this lesson. As much as we might wish to have something helpful to say, sometimes, there are just no words …
Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36
Just like the first one, the second Torah portion of Leviticus is laser focused on sacrifice, and in our own ways, so are we. The specifics for how to offer various sacrifices continues through parashat Tzav. Rabbi Nicole Auerbach, long before the virus hit, was intrigued by the details and underlying reasons for one of these sacrifices in particular: the asham (reparations) offering. Citing the tension that exists between how God created order in the world through Creation, and how human beings reliably muck up that order, she writes:
“God has learned something since encountering that first act of rebellion in the Garden of Eden. Rather than meet every transgression with permanent exile, God commands that the Israelites who have strayed offer a sacrifice to make amends and to mark their intention to re-order their behavior.”[i]
The Hebrew word for order is seder. When we stray, we need to find a way to bring order back to our lives. The same is true when the world shifts under our feet – like it has today. We need to re-order our lives to adjust to our new reality, and doing so requires a sacrifice, and our specific challenges of what and how to re-order are as varied as we are ourselves. For some of us, we are struggling to find the balance between work and homeschooling our children, others are struggling to care for a loved one, or are suffering from the disease ourselves. Some of us have too much time on our hands and don’t know how to structure it so that we can find meaning and purpose (and distract ourselves from the constant worry), others are working so hard that we are close to burning out. Regardless of our personal situations, a new sense of seder cannot come soon enough.
Here’s the thing. Seder is not something we passively receive. It is something we actively create. Bringing seder to our lives and to our world is one of the most important ways we partner with God, continuing the work which began with Creation. We can begin to create order in a variety of ways, and these can be our asham offerings, from and for our hearts.
Here are just a few ideas:
For those who are overwhelmed with too much to do: make “you” time one of your priorities and put it on your schedule. Even if it is just 5 – 10 minutes a day to breathe, meditate, listen to music, whatever feeds your soul – make that a sacrosanct commitment. Do not say to yourself that you have no time. You do. We are in a crisis; you cannot be all things to all people without a break. I mean, even God needed a day of rest.
For those who need to fill their time with something meaningful, look for ways to volunteer (safely) in your community. It turns out that we are incapable of feeling any of those dark emotions if we are wholeheartedly helping another. Or if you cannot find a volunteer opportunity, consider how you might be a support to your family and friends (even from a distance). Or, take a closer look at that big project you always toyed with but never decided to act on. Be creative. Be a creator.
For those who are caring for the sick, know that what you are doing is the most important thing of all. And remember what the flight attendants say at the beginning of each flight: in case of emergency place your oxygen mask on first before placing a mask on the person sitting next to you who may need assistance. It will help you to be a better care provider.
And for all of us, let us continue to pray that God will be with us, giving us the strength, the courage, and the patience to bring order back to our world.
May healing come, speedily, for us all.
[i] Rabbi Barry H Block, ed., “The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life.” New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2020. P. 156
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