Weekly Torah Commentary – Shemini April 1, 2016

Leviticus 9 – 11

This week’s Torah portion begins with the 8th day of celebration of the consecration of the Tabernacle.

Aaron, the High Priest, offers a calf as a sin offering, ostensibly to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf.

The Community of Israel then presents a goat offering, leading Biblical commentators to point out that the sin offering of the nation was meant to bring about forgiveness for the sale of Joseph for Joseph’s brothers stained his coat with goat’s blood to deceive their father.

Thus, atonement was made for two major transgressions of the Jewish people on that awesome day.

Aaron… descended from the altar where he had offered the sin-offering and the burnt-offering and the peace-offering. And Moses and Aaron went into the Tent of the Meeting and then they went outside and blessed the people, and the glory of God appeared to the entire people. A fire came forth from before God and consumed what was on the altar … All the people saw and they raised their voices in praise and they fell on their faces. (Leviticus 9:22-24)

What happens next is as unexpected as it is tragic:

The sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, took a pan, and placed fire within, and put incense upon the fire. They brought before God a strange fire which they had not been commanded to bring. A fire came out from in front of God and consumed them; they died in front of God. Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what God had referred to, “I will be sanctified by those close to me, thus I will be honored by the entire people,”‘ and Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10:1-3)

Perplexing situation. What was wrong with the behavior of Nadav and Avihu? What motivated them to offer ‘strange fire’?  What was the origin of their downfall, the beginning of their end?

The Torah recounts God’s instructions to Moses at Mount Sinai in preparation for the giving of the Torah:

To Moses [God] said, ‘Ascend to God, you, and Aaron, and Nadav and Avihu, and the seventy elders of Israel, and they shall prostrate themselves from afar …’ Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and the seventy elders arose. They saw the Lord of Israel and beneath His feet, like a brickwork of sapphire … And to the aristocracy of the Children of Israel, He [God] did not strike His hand. They viewed the Lord, they ate and drank. (Exodus 24:1,9-11)

This curious passage may hold the key to understanding the sin of Nadav and Avihu. They were called out from the rest of the nation, implying they would be future leaders. They were invited to join Moses, and they had a better vantage point than the rest of the nation. The purpose of the ascent to the mountain is to bow from afar; instead, they stood and stared.

Contrast this with the behavior of Moses when he saw the burning bush.   Moses hid his face in humility.

Could it be that as a result of their exalted position, Nadav and Avihu misused the opportunity, and instead of prostrating themselves, or covering their faces, they stared at the Divine Presence?

Moses, as a result of covering his face, becomes, as it were, angelic, needing neither food nor drink. Nadav and Avihu, on the other hand, “viewed the Lord, they ate and drank.” The text seems to imply a lack of humility, of reverence, of appropriate response to the unique opportunity that was theirs to be on the mountain with Moses.  Was the problem that they thought too highly of themselves?  Had an exalted opinion of themselves because they were chosen for this amazing experience?

Spiritual pride is an insidious enemy to our inner growth.  There are many definitions of pride but this is my favorite, simple and to the point.  Pride is a peculiar kind of insanity caused by a lack of Humility.

A love or esteem of our own ‘excellence’ is as deceptive as it is contrary to righteousness and holiness. It is directly opposed to the humble submission of a created person before His Creator. Pride is therefore a perverse love of greatness; it causes us to seek to serve God according to our own ideas instead of humbling obeying His revealed Word.

Pride often arises among spiritually minded people because of undisciplined zeal.  Now, zeal for God and the things of God is good and admirable, provided it is balanced by its accompanying virtues of humility, wisdom and obedience to God’s Word.  Raw zeal without wisdom has led to many a tragic end.

Why does the definition above call pride ‘a peculiar kind of insanity’?  Stop and think:  everything we have – talents, gifts, family, friends, etc – all of it comes from God.  Waking up this morning, alive and cognizant, is a gift.  Every breath we take is a gift.  We, as children of God, are blessed beyond measure each day by His bountiful kindness.  As we read in Lamentations 3: 22-23  The Lord’s loving kindnesses never cease; His compassions never fails. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness.

Knowing we have such a loving Father in heaven, one must be a ‘little insane’ at the very least to exalt oneself in pride, to think of oneself as better than anyone else, as ‘more chosen’ than one’s brethren.

In Tune with Torah this week = it’s time for a ‘check up from the neck up’.  How do we truly view ourselves? Do we see ourselves as better than others? Wiser? Smarter?  Let me quote for you from a father’s letter to his son:

When your actions display genuine humility – when you stand meekly before man, and fearfully before God; when you stand wary of sin – then the spirit of God’s Presence will rest upon you, as will the splendor of His Glory; you will live the life of the World to Come.

And now my son, understand clearly that one who is prideful in his heart towards other men rebels against the sovereignty of heaven, for he glorifies himself in God’s own robes, for it is written, The Lord reigns, He dons the mantle of grandeur (Psalm 93:1).

For indeed, of what should man be prideful? if he has wealth – it is God who makes one prosperous. And if honor – does honor not belong to God? As it is written: Wealth and honor come from You (Chronicles b 29:12) – how can one glorify himself with the honor of his Maker? If he takes pride in wisdom – let him understand that God may remove the speech of the most competent and take away the wisdom of the aged (Job 12:20).

Thus, all men stand as equals before their Creator. In His fury He casts down the lofty; in His goodwill He elevates the downtrodden. Therefore, humble yourself, for God will lift you up.

Then he adds….

Let all men seem greater than you in your eyes: If another is more wise or wealthy than yourself, you must show him respect. And if he is poor, and you are richer or wiser than he, consider that he may be more righteous than yourself: If he sins it is the result of error, while your transgression is deliberate.  (Quoted from Iggeret HaRamban, written to his son in the 13th century)

Imagine a community where everyone lived by this exhortation.

Let it start with you and me.

Shabbat Shalom


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