Weekly Torah Commentary – Shemini March 25, 2011

This week’s Torah portion is found in Vayikra/Leviticus chapters 9 through 11.  It begins with the words, ‘It was on the eighth day…’

The number 8 in Gematria (biblical numerology) carries the meaning of ‘new beginnings’, ‘a new order of things’, and ‘the first of a new series’.  We see this played out in the very first chapter of the Torah which describes the creation of the world in 6 days followed by the day of rest — Shabbat — on the 7th day.  The next day or the 8th day is in fact the first day of the system of weeks which was a ‘new order of things’.

Jewish baby boys are circumcised on the 8th day after their birth, thereby entering into the covenant.

We also note that after the Flood in the days of Noah, 8 souls survived to begin the ‘new order of things’ – to repopulate the earth and create a new society after the devastation.

The events described in Vayikra/Lev. 10:1 – 3 happen on this same 8th day which is referenced in the opening verse of this portion. This particular 8th day also held great significance.  It immediately followed the time of instructions regarding the various types of sacrifices which we read in last week’s parsha.  Having been taught what to do, the time has now come to do it on this 8th day.

What was so unique about this day?

1 – It was the first day for the priesthoos to serve in the Mishkan/Tabernacle

2 – It was the first day for the Divine Service in which communal offerings would be presented to Hashem

3 – It was the first day that the leaders of each Tribe would bring sacrifices (ref. Num. 7:10)

4 – It was the first day that heavenly fire descended and consumed the sacrifices.

5 – It was the first day that the Divine Presence rested on the Mishkan in the midst of Israel

6 – It was the first day that the Israelites would be blessed with the Priestly Blessing by Aaron.

7 – It was the first day on which private altars for sacrifice were prohibited

8 – It was Rosh Chodesh Nissan – the first day of the month Nissan which is the first month of the biblical year.

Another series of ‘8’.

Against this unique background, two of the sons of Aaron the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), Nadav and Abihu, bring their fire pans with what the Torah calls “foreign fire” and present it to God, a fire which God had not commanded to be brought on this hallmark day.  For this transgression, they suffer immediate death.

Wow – one may react.  What a harsh punishment!  How can this be?  Were not these young men virtuous, dedicated, passionate about God and His Torah?  In fact, yes, they were.  So what went wrong?

First of all, they offered foreign fire on a particularly sacred day, making their transgression all the more serious.

Secondly, theirs was a great calling.  With great gifting comes great responsibility and accountability.

Thirdly, wise men have taught us that our greatest strengths can become our downfall.

Zeal for God and the Torah is a very good thing; excessive zeal leads to spiritual pride, haughtiness and a sense of superiority.  Excessive zeal leads one to go beyond what God has commanded and the Torah tells us “not to add or subtract” from His Word.  A misguided passion can distort the ultra-religious mindset into thinking that “doing more” is better, holier, and superior to others, thereby feeding the human tendency towards self-exaltion.  Pride results from a bloated sense of self-importance.

One of Judaism’s greatest sages, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, wrote in his classic work, THE PATH OF THE JUST (MESSILAT YESHARIM):

Our Sages of blessed memory have said (Sotah 5b), “How great are those who are lowly in spirit, for when the Beit HaMikdash [Temple] was in existence a person would sacrifice a burnt offering and would be credited for the burnt offering, [or] a meal offering and be credited for a meal offering.  Yet he who is humble of mind is considered as if he has sacrificed all of the offerings possible, as it says in Tehillim 51:19, ‘the [preferred] Divine sacrifices are those of a broken spirit.’  This is the praise given to the humble in spirit, for they possess humilty in their hearts and thoughts.”

Far be it from us to arbitrarily judge the heart intent of Nadav and Abihu in bringing their “foreign fire”, but we must seek to learn from their experience.  One lesson among others is our need to walk humbly before God and our fellow man; to guard our hearts against any attitude of superiority, intolerance, or disrespect towards those whose spiritual path may differ from ours; to flee from “holier than thou” thoughts, words or deeds that feed pride and destroy humility.

In Tune with Torah this week = nurturing an attitude of respect towards others while realizing that regardless of how far we may have come in our own spirituality, we still have a great deal of growing to do.



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