This week we will be reading from Parashat Shemini. It is a particular favorite for those looking to comment on a Torah portion because it not only contains the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests, but also the sudden an inexplicable death of Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu.
There are numerous midrashim related to the demise of Nadav and Avihu. As the story goes, they, without being commanded to, chose to offer up incense and aish zarah, “alien fire”, as an offering to God. As the Torah teaches, “then fire came forth from the Eternal and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Eternal” (Leviticus 10:2).
The Torah tends to be very terse of language. There is no great rationale given for what transpired, so the rabbis were left to try to fill in the gaps. One of the midrashim, or rabbinic stories, explains that the sons wanted to elevate themselves above Moses and Aaron. Another is that they viewed themselves as being too good for any potential wife because of who their father and uncle were. Another is that they were drinking the day they made this sacrifice and therefore died because of their disrespect to the Sacred and Holy. And yet another explains that they did not physically die, but instead it was a death of the spirit.
When looking at all of these midrashim, they struggle to explain the inexplicable, sometimes more successfully than others. And in the end, they tell us more about the interpreters than perhaps about the events of the Torah. But this is one of the most beautiful parts of being Jewish. Our sacred text is incomplete. One could argue that this is by intent. We are meant to struggle with the meaning of the text. We are also meant to find our own interpretations. As Rabbi Ben Bag Bag said in the Mishnah, “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it” (Pirkei Avot 5:22).
Also, in case you are interested, we do this every Saturday morning at 9am with our Taste of Torah. We bring ourselves and our experiences to engage in dialogue with our Sacred text. No previous knowledge or experience with Torah study is required or even needed. All we need are you and a willingness to keep turning Torah, which in turn, helps us grow in our understanding of what our tradition demands of us.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff