Parashat Shemini – Erev Shabbat 17 April 2020
Week of 12-18 April 2020
Torah portion: Leviticus 9:1-11:47 Haftarah: 2 Samuel 6:1-7:17
Theme: Aaron’s silence
Today’s Parashah and Haftarah are alike in pointing out three realities, namely: the divine disapproval, death and the response of the characters who were directly involved. I am referring to G-d’s anger at the “conduct” of Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, and at Uzzah, David’s servant, consequently leading to their deaths. Though the incidents seem similar, Aaron’s and David’s reactions to them are very different.
The traditional reading of the two stories focuses on G-d’s disapproval of the conducts of Aaron’s sons and of Uzzah before the Holy of Holies, and therefore warrants the punishment of death. Personally, it is unsettling to understand such an interpretation, because I find it hard to reconcile punishment by death in these two narratives with a G-d who is all-merciful and forgiving. Does G-d really get angry with the ‘misbehaviour’ of people before the Divine Presence?
The silence of Aaron at the unexpected death of his two sons, right before his very eyes, was something that perplexed some sages and rabbis. It seems that we are uncomfortable with such unexplainable silence, and so even the text shares Aaron’s stillness. In trying to understand the silence, some have justified the death of Nadab and Abihu as well as G-d’s anger. A negative speculation for the death of Nadab and Abihu was that the two entered the Holy of Holies drunk and arrogant, showing disrespect before G-d. The text does in some way support this, “they offered before the LORD alien fire which had not been enjoined upon them.” (10:1 – “Women’s Commentary” text)
The text tells us that “Aaron was silent” (10:3). Aaron’s silence speaks of many emotions: shock, deep fear, anger and others; all of which overwhelmed him as this excruciating event took place before his eyes. Of course, he was trying to contain his emotions and could not find the words to express them. What other response can we have in the seeming ‘destructive’ act of G-d? One who has experienced a loss of a significant other can very well identify with what Aaron was going through in this portion.
Another interpretation of this shocking event seems to be in the words of Moses to Aaron: “Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the Lord meant when he said, »Through those who are near me /I will show myself holy, /
and before all the people/I will be glorified«’”. (10:3, NRSV) The young, inexperienced priests in their fervor and love wanted to get too close to Holy of Holies and thus they abused their priestly privilege and G-d had to show
G-d’s transcendence (holiness) by the deaths.
What of Uzzah’s death in attempting to touch the Ark to prevent it from toppling over? In Numbers 4:15 the Lord tells Moses and Aaron that “the Kohathites shall come to carry these, but they must not touch the holy things, or they will die.” Uzzah’s death is the result. What is David’s response? He was angry at G-d’s outburst and then he became fearful of the LORD and he said: “How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?” (7:8-9) David then took the Ark to the house of Obed-Edom where it remained for three months. God blessed Obed-Edom and his household (6:10-11).
Aaron’s silence can be seen as humility before the Holy One. David’s anger leads to fear of the Mighty One and then to humility – his unworthiness to receive the Holy One into his city. The point was made in both narratives: the Holiness of G-d must be reverenced at all times.
For Reflection and Discussion: 1. How do I make sense of the sudden loss of a loved one? 2. In what way could this Parasha and Haftarah help me in dealing with my grief? 3. What have I learnt about the Holiness of God?
Bibliography: Edwards, L. “The Sounds of Silence” (https://reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/shmini/sounds-silence); Bookman, T. “Mourning and Meaning” (https://reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/shmini/mourning-and-meaning); Hachen, D. “When There are no Answers” (https://reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/shmini/alien-fire)