Weekly Reading Insights:
the Weekly Reading
To be read on Shabbat Shemini,
26 Nisan 5777 /April 22
Torah: Leviticus 9:1-11:47; Haftorah: Samuel II 6:1-19
Shemini is the 3rd Reading out of 10 in Leviticus and it contains
4670 letters, in 1238 words, in 91 verses.
Shemini begins with a discussion
of the service in the Tabernacle on the eighth day, the first day following
the seven days of installation. Aharon's eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, brought
an unauthorized fire offering and were consumed by flame from the Holy of
Holies. Aharon is instructed that the priests should never come to the Sanctuary
in a state of drunkenness. Then the completion of the service is discussed.
The balance of the portion is a discussion of the dietary laws, specifically
which mammals, fish, birds and insects are spiritually pure or not, and which
are appropriate to eat and which not.
Rabbi Shaul Yosef Leiter, Director of Ascent
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The opening verse in this week's Torah portion, Shemini, is set
on the eighth and final day of the inauguration of the holy Mishkan ('Sanctuary').
The Mishkan was the portable sanctuary used by the Jewish people for
the 40 years in the desert until the holy Temple in Jerusalem was built by King
Solomon almost 400 years later.
Aharon the High Priest prepared an offering on the inaugural day and placed
it on the Altar. The Torah tell us (9/24) that a fire descended from heaven
and consumed the offering. The Sanctuary was filled with G-d's presence. All
the Jewish people, 2 million of them, saw the miracle, called out G-d's praise
and fell down in awe.
Soon after, the two elder sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, lit an 'unauthorized
fire' for their incense offering. In response, a fire came from G-d and consumed
them and they died. Everyone, including their uncle Moshe and Aharon, were in
If the whole purpose of the Mishkan was to be a place of Divine service, what
did they do wrong?
There are three different opinions about what was the offense of Nadav and Avihu
that resulted in their death. The first opinion was that their action of bringing
an unauthorized fire was based on their interpreting a divine statement on their
own, without asking Moshe. A student who renders a decision in the presence
of their master deserves to die.
A second opinion counters the first. The sons of Aharon had been taught properly
by Moshe. There is an obligation of a priest to light a fire on the Altar which
in turn draws down the divine fire. But this law applied only on regular days,
not on this special holy day which was the final day of the inauguration. On
this day all the fire was supposed to be divine fire, come from heaven. By lighting
a fire below first, Nadav and Avihu were guilty of minimizing the miraculous
events, thereby lessoning G-d's honor. A person who minimizes a divine miracle
in the eyes of the people deserves to die.
The third opinion suggested why Nadav and Avihu were punished was because they
entered the Mishkan to perform the sacred service while intoxicated.
How do we know this was forbidden? Because immediately after the Torah tell
us this story, G-d speaks to Aharon, and warns all future generations of priests
that it is forbidden to enter the Mishkan when drunk. But, this warning
was after their offense, for the future. How were Nadav and Avihu supposed to
The Lubavitcher Rebbe brings a very interesting answer.
Rashi, the main commentary, on the verse, (10/2) "and a fire came from
G-d and consumed them", writes the following: Rabbi Eliezer says, the sons
of Aharon died because they taught a law in the presence of (without asking)
Moshe. Rabbi Yishmael says they went into the Sanctuary intoxicated. Know that
after their death the remaining priests were warned not to enter the sanctuary
intoxicated. Rashi continues, this is analogous to a king who had a ben bayis,
a 'son of the house', someone familiar with the workings of the palace.He then
cites his source, the Midrash of Vayikra.
Rashi's commentary was divinely inspired. The Rebbe therefore learns many things
from the specific language Rashi uses. On this particular Rashi, the Rebbe finds
the words Rashi quotes problematic. If Rashi wanted us to refer to the Midrash,
it would have been enough to say, "Analogous to the king
as is discussed
in the Midrash". If Rashi wanted to give us the content of the
Midrash in his commentary, then saying only "analogous to a king who
had a ben bayis" is itself inadequate.
The Rebbe suggests that Rashi's wording is actually telling us what was the
reason Nadav and Avihu were punished, even ifonly after their actions, G-d taught
the prohibition to not enter the Mishkan while drunk!
The answer is that the reason they were punished is based on the Torah teaching
about a king who had a ben melech, someone familiar with the workings
of the palace and therefore was expected to know how to behave in a fitting
way. A 'son of the palace' understands intuitively on his own. Even without
a detailed warning, a 'son of the house', a person intimately familiar with
the inner workings of the palace, knows that certain types of behavior are simply
the opposite of what the king wants and expects.
Similarly with Nadav and Avihu. Since these were Aharon's sons, brought up in
the spiritual center of the Jewish people, they should have known automatically
the appropriate way to behave in G-d's Mishkan, even without a direct command.
They should have understood that bringing their own fire on this special day
was out of place.
The teaching here for each of us is clear. There are 613 divine commandments
and many, many laws taught pertaining to how to fulfill them. Yet, where Nadov
and Avihu fell short was there are some things, some ways of behaving, that
should be apparent even if we are not being told. Every Jew is like a ben
bayis, a 'son of the house' -- someone whose respect for G-d and His Torah
supersedes all and is apparent to all of us and therefore dictates our behavior,
even if we were not directly informed. G-d trusts us and we have taken on this
responsibility. The more we study the Torah the more the underlying theme, how
a Jew should behave, how to always be alert how to make the world a dwelling
place for G-d, should become more and more apparent.
There is a tradition that the scribe always begins to write the Torah scroll
on the second column of the parchment. Why is there always a blank column before
the scribe starts? To remind us that even before the Torah begins a person has
an obligation to be a mentch. What is the proof? The Midrash teaches
(Vayika 9/3) that derech eretz (politeness) preceded the Torah!
In the opening pages of the Siddur, the order of our daily prayers, are
the words, "Always a person should be G-d fearing (,even) in private."
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk taught that the most important words here are
the first 3, "Always be a person". That one should always be proper
person, a mentch, no matter what is going on around you
The Tolner Rebbe once tested a young scholar on the code of Jewish law. "How
many sections did you learn," the Rebbe asked? "All four," replied
the student. "What about the 5th section. Did you learn that also?"
"The 5th section?" asked the student. "What 5th section? I never
heard of a 5th section!" "The 5th section," the Rebbe answered,
"is to always be a mentch."
Shabbat shalom, Shaul
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For last year's essay by Rabbi Leiter on this week's Reading,
see the archive.
THE SAGES OF KABBALAH ON KabbalaOnline.org
Specifically, for an overview
of the recommended articles in the columns:
Holy Zohar, Holy Ari, Mystic Classics, Chasidic Masters, Contemporary Kabbalists,
click to Shemini
Below, Delight Above
From the teachings of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai; translation and commentary by
Shmuel-Simcha Treister, based on Metok MiDevash
The Zohar teaches that every action in this world causes a similar reaction
in the higher spiritual realities; as priests, upon whom such immense responsibility
lies for drawing down spiritual sustenance, the blemish of torn clothes, unkempt
hair, and mournful manner would render inoperative their ability to manifest
G-d's benevolence for the world
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