Shemini – Rushing back in time

6 Moses said: this is the commanded to do so we can perceive the presence of  YHWH. 7 Moses said to Aaron: approach the altar, offer your offering of transgression and your burnt offering; make expiation for yourself and for the people.

Leviticus 9

We are about to watch the Cohanim, the priestly caste, in action. They dressed and acted so uniquely but we are not in tune with them. We are from the world of the microscope and telescope and cyberspace. They are baffled by human bodily functions and hadn’t a clue about bacteria or viruses or how disease spreads from one person to another. So through their offerings that turned into smoke, they would attempt to cast out the evils and invoke the divine presence.

Tel Dan Alter

But what difference does it make if we know or are yet to discover greater truths about the workings of the secrets of atoms or the entire cosmos? Aren’t we all searching to connect to the positive forces around us and survive another day or another decade? Humans do not want to reach the moment that oblivion might suddenly wash over them…

1 Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire pan and lit a fire where they put incense on it; they offered unauthorized fire before YHWH, that they had not been commanded to do. 2 A blaze of fire from YHWH and consumed them, they died before YHWH.

Leviticus 10

STOP! No let’s not face this event or try to imagine the inferno that flared up and consumed Nadav and Avihu. How could the ever eloquent Aaron standing in silent attention at the site of this unfathomable failure to sacrifice? Everyone would try to avert their eyes from the procession that carried two young bodies from the procession, through the Israelite camp and into the desert for burial. It is unthinkable: Aaron and his family had to scream and mourn in silence, while trying to comprehend their loss.

4 Moses called to Mishael and Elzaphan, sons of Uzziel Aaron’s uncle, saying to them: come forward; take your brothers away from before the sanctuary to the outskirts of the camp. 5 They came forward and carried them to the outskirts of the camp by their cloaks as Moses had spoken. 6 Moses said to Aaron and to his sons Eliezar and to Itamar, do not let your hair go wild or tear your clothing so that you will not die and bring fury on the whole community; and all of your relatives from the house of Israel will lament the blaze that YHWH sent.

Leviticus 4-6

Forget this ancient scene and find a contemporary method to live with inexplicable horrors. Rationalize away the incident and the pain, in order to move on. Aaron set up the altar again and it went on as clearly commanded. We may not be able to comprehend but we have to look back and try to see what they saw – precarious existence and imminent dangers all around.

Light the fire again and make another sacrifice. We are together in pain and in sorrow. We go on. We can mull over these lines, which came to be written so much later, as we think of that family of old in hopes that we can come to terms with what happened to them:

8 No one can redeem a companion; nor expiate someone else to God.

16 But God will expiate me from oblivion and take hold of me !

Psalm 49

Face the current era that has witnessed disasters by the score in Darfur, 9/11, Tibet, HIV, Kosvo, Syria and remember Nadav and Avihu.


We didn’t start the fire – Billy Joel

Midrash Harabah and English translations by Rabbi Gail Shuster-Bouskila ©2021