Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 30 March 2019 / 23 Adar II 5779

Parshat Shemini

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Demanding of His Dear Ones

The building of the Tabernacle is complete. It is the eighth day of the inauguration proceedings, and Aharon brings the special sacrificial offerings to mark this joyous and holy day. Moshe and Aharon bless the people, and G-d’s glory is revealed to the entire nation, as a Heavenly fire consumes the offerings. The people shouted for joy and fell on their faces, in joyful prayer and homage.

The sons of Aharon — Nadav and Avihu — moved by the sight of this Heavenly fire and the revelation of G-d’s closeness, desired to increase this closeness and bring their own offering — one that they had not been commanded to do. Their offering — in content and form — was illegal in every respect. Moreover, it was illegal by the virtue of the fact that it had not been commanded. Subjective arbitrariness has no place in the service of offerings. Even the free-willed offerings must comply with prescribed forms. This principle — that nearness to G-d must be specifically through acceptance of the yoke of His commandments and not through personal caprice — characterizes all of the Temple service. The offering of Nadav and Avihu ended in their deaths because at the time of dedication, this message had to be communicated to all future Kohanim.

Yet, these men — Nadav and Avihu — are still called “My close ones.” After the fire consumed them, Moshe turns to Aaron and says, “This is what G-d spoke, saying, ‘I will be sanctified through those near to Me, and thus I will be honored by all the people.’” The meaning of these words is as follows: Through G-d’s strong actions against His close ones — even decreeing upon them death — it becomes manifest that His will is absolute. For even the greatest people, those close to Him — precisely they — are not allowed the slightest deviation from His Will. As a result, the people will come to recognize the weight of the obedience they owe.

Seen in this light, these words of G-d contain consolation for Aharon — and therefore he remained silent. Had Nadav and Avihu not been “near to Hashem,” their sin may have been forgiven, and the Divine decree that was dealt them would not have been a warning of such significance to the people. The Gemara (Yevamot 121b) expounds on the verse in Tehillim, “And round about Him it is exceedingly stormy.” This teaches us that G-d is exacting — even to a hairsbreadth [a play on Hebrew word for stormy] — for those who are closest to Him.

How different is this compared to society’s attitude towards the ‘great men’ of the intellectual and political worlds, who are all but granted immunity for their moral lapses. They are hardly called to task, and news stories barely raise an eyebrow.

In Judaism, the greater the person, the greater his moral responsibilities.

  • Sources: Commentary, Vayikra 10:1-3

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