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Parshah Shemini

03/24/2022 04:33:08 PM

Mar24

Rabbi Hearshen

There are many parts of the Torah that are rough and difficult. There are many times where the reader is forced to question how something could be written in such a fashion. A great example of this is the story of the Rape of Dina. The lack of caring shown by her father, Jacob, and the violence that occurred, were both so disillusioning and yet there they are in our holy text. It’s clear to me that struggling with text isn’t a sign of disdain for the text so much as it’s a practice of adoration and sanctification of the words in the scroll. It’s through our deeper discernment that we manage to find sanctity and to unlock the deeper aspects of our people.

This week’s portion, Shemini, has one of those very difficult parts of the Torah in it that we must probe and discuss. The Sanctuary was being dedicated for eight days and the Levi’im and the Kohenim were very busy. On that eighth day, two kohens, Nadav and Avihu (Aaron’s sons) entered the Sanctuary and made an offering that was not commanded. Immediately they were killed by God through some all-encompassing fire. At that moment, Moses turned to his brother, Aaron (the boys’ father), and said something like: That’s what God meant by… There is no comfort and there is no grieving. In fact, the Torah said that Aaron was silent. At that moment of enormous loss he was silent???

Over the generations, our people have tried to rationalize this narrative. Over the ages we’ve struggled and tried to explain it all away. Some claim Nadav and Avihu were overzealous and impatient for when they would become the leaders of the Israelites since they were in the chain of succession. Others claim they were inebriated when they made the offering as the command against making offerings while being intoxicated came soon thereafter. There are also those who tried to assert they simply disobeyed a clear and direct command, and as leaders of the people, this was too dangerous to be allowed. The Tabernacle was meant to be a system with an order through which the Israelites worshipped. Anyone who stepped away from that system was showing a lack of care and respect for the institution and for God.

Here’s my problem with every one of these explanations: the punishment did not fit the crime. No matter what it was that Nadav and Avihu did wrong, it did not warrant a heavenly death sentence. If Aaron wasn’t killed for his role in the Golden Calf, then how could this be “just?” It’s through my discomfort with this narrative that I’m able to better understand my whole worldview and my values. Fairness, equity, repentance, second chances, justice and so much more are the ways in which I see the world. All of these are lacking in this story. Often times we learn so much more from what is lacking or from the negative than we can see at first. We learn we can and need to do better. We learn that pain can teach us lessons as well. We learn that imperfection is a part of the world, and as such, we’ll always have the ability to improve.

When something makes us wince, when something causes us discomfort, we don’t ignore it or cast it aside. We accept the discomfort and use it to push us to do and be better. There are so many things in this world that break our hearts. There are so many things in the world that cause us to cry. Those things push us and that’s a good thing. May we all embrace the world as it is - but never stop trying to make it what it needs to become.

I chose to not write this article about Ukraine. I did this because I’ve spoken about the war each week since fighting began and I’ve written extensively as well. Tomorrow night, we’re holding a unity dinner/fundraiser. I cannot begin to tell you how happy and gratified I am by the response of our community. We’ve sold out the dinner and have managed to raise over $5,000 to contribute to the Atlanta Jewish Federation Emergency Relief Fund, Chaired by our very own Steven Cadranel. He just returned from Poland with the Federation CEO where they were gained firsthand knowledge and lent a hand in the relief effort. This, to me, is a prime example of seeing the world as it is and fighting to make it the world it needs to become.

Sun, June 26 2022 27 Sivan 5782