Torah Portion

Parshat Shemini

Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47

On April 14, a week after the end of Passover, the parshah contains one of the oddest and most inexplicable narrative episodes in the Torah – the episode of the “strange fire.”

The entire book of Leviticus is mostly a handbook to the priests and Levites about how to offer sacrifices in the Tabernacle. To us – to modern Jews – this ritual practice of animal sacrifices seems hopelessly primitive. However, of the 613 commandments, 150 of them (almost a fourth) are about the sacrifices!

Jody Hirsh

The Rabbi/physician/philosopher Maimonides in the 13th Century agrees that the practice is hopelessly antiquated. According to Maimonides, God, in God’s infinite wisdom, realized that in antiquity, one never would have accepted a religion that didn’t include the ritual of animal sacrifices. Maimonides felt that in his “modern” times, there was no longer a need for sacrifices.

Many medieval Jews, however, disagreed with the great rabbi. They were overwhelmed with the sanctity of the sacrifices. They studied the sacrificial commandments and prayed for the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem and the institution of sacrifices! In fact, many illuminated medieval Hebrew manuscripts include diagrams of the implements used in the Temple.

Toward the end of Leviticus, chapter nine, Aaron, Moses’ brother and the High Priest, offers a burnt offering before the Lord. As he exits the Tent of Meeting to bless the people, we are told, “And there came forth fire from before the Lord, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat; and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces.” His performance was a big hit. However, not all fire from heaven was a blessing. Immediately after that, in chapter 10, we are told, “And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his fire pan, and put fire in it, and laid incense on it, and offered a strange fire before the lord, which He had not commanded them. And there came forth fire from before the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord.” What? A punishment from God? For what? What, exactly, is a strange fire? And why is it punishable by death?

As you might imagine, the rabbis are not in agreement about the nature of this strange fire, and about what, exactly, was the sin of Nadav and Avihu. Was it because they didn’t follow the proper commandments about sacrifices? Was it because it was a sacrifice that God had not commanded specifically? Was it because of ambition, a struggle for power, or willfulness? Were they disoriented by too much enthusiasm? Was their act an act of fanaticism based on their love of God? Was it too much independence?

Sometimes, religious zeal can be either a blessing or a curse. What is that “strange fire?” Is it overzealousness? Enthusiasm? Is it possible that religion can have both an enlightened holy side, and a dark side? Can religious zeal go too far, or perhaps not far enough? Is the message of our parshah a cautionary tale about responsibility and holiness? Did Nadav and Avihu go so far, that even their impressive lineage could not protect them?

Jody Hirsh is the Judaic Education Director of the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, and the director of the Milwaukee Jewish Artists’ Laboratory.

 

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