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.
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 27:20 – 30:1
Why is this portion different from all other portions?
The word Teztaveh means “you will command,” and we do not see it often in Torah. Rather, when God wants Moses to pass along a command to the people, the text usually reads something like: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying …” The use of the word Tetzaveh removes the need to specifically name Moses; it is in the first person, rather than in the third person. Even more, there is no mention of Moses anywhere in the portion!
The Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman (1720-1797), taught that the portion is usually read on or near the 7th of Adar, the anniversary of Moses’ death. Moses’ name is omitted either to presage the date of his death, or to serve as a reminder to all of us who came after. Others suggest a connection to what Moses will eventually say to God during the Golden Calf incident. At the top of Mount Sinai Moses asks God the bear the iniquity of the people rather than punish them, and then goes so far as to seemingly cross a line. He challenges God directly, saying: “… and if not, wipe me out, pray, from Your book which You have written.” (Ex. 32:32) According to this interpretation God grants Moses’ wish in advance; Heaven can turn down no request by the righteous, even if it is a curse rather than a blessing.
For me, however, the most compelling answer comes from Rabbi Elye Hayyim Meisel, the rabbi of Lodz (1821-1912). As a general rule, he was always ready to help raise large sums of money for various institutions, but he refused to get involved with distributing the funds. When asked why, he replied:
The only parashah in which Moses’ name is not mentioned is Tetzaveh. In the previous parashah, Terumah, where the Torah deals with the collecting of money, Moses’ name is mentioned many times, but afterwards, when it comes to distributing the money, he is not mentioned even once. Moses did not want his name to be mentioned in order to avoid any suspicion.
This is a beautiful teaching, and it merits serious consideration. For those who want to take a little extra time with his message, I would like to leave you with just one more question: “suspicion of what?”
Exodus 1:1 - 6:1
Timing is everything.
Every New Year is about new beginnings, new chances for success (both personal and professional), new possibilities. This week, just after we celebrate the secular New Year, we will begin a new book of Torah. Parashat Shemot opens with the darkness of slavery, but ends by pointing us squarely towards a brighter future. The journey to the Promised Land will be anything but easy, yet, with time and persistence we eventually arrive. As we read Shemot this Shabbat, let us look forward to the New Year with the realism and optimism of Torah. Let’s identify the specific obstacles that lie ahead so that we can meet and beat them, and let’s also keep faith – faith with God and with ourselves. With God's help we truly can make each new tomorrow brighter.
Genesis 28:10 - 32:3
Some things just stick with you. For me, one of those things is a little gem of a book written by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner. It's called "God was in this Place & I, i did not know," and the entire book is about a single verse of Torah, Genesis 28:16. In it, Rabbi Kushner shares seven different interpretations of the verse, each one more fascinating and challenging that the last.
The verse is a direct quotation from Jacob, who at the opening of this week's Torah portion reaches rock bottom. In last week's portion, Jacob triumphantly purchased the birthright of succession from his brother Esau for a bowl of lentils, and then successfully stole Esau's blessing of inheritance by tricking their blind father Isaac. However, the moment Esau finds out, he determines to kill his brother, and Jacob flees for his life. At the opening of VaYetze, Jacob finds himself in the middle of the Wilderness with only the clothing on his back and a rock for a pillow. That night he dreams of angels climbing and descending along a nearby ladder that extends to heaven. When he awakes, he says: "God was in the Place and I, i did not know." (Gen. 28:16)
Rabbi Kushner observes that until this moment, Jacob focused his entire life on ... Jacob. Jacob is so full of himself, that there is no room for anyone else. It is only when he loses everything, when his "I" is diminished and becomes an "i" that Jacob discovers one of the most important teachings of Torah: even in those places where we seem totally alone, God is with us.
For those of us who struggle to see the Divine Presence in our world, we can take a lesson from Jacob: all we need to do is to look inside ourselves and then make a little room.
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