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Drash on Sh’mini 2023

Rabbi Esther Jilovsky PhD

Temple Sinai

When I lived in Jerusalem, I was surprised to discover that Israelis’ winter footwear of choice was Blundstone boots, or as we tend to call them in Australia, Blunnies. Like so many Aussie slang terms, it’s shortened to something easier to say, albeit a little quirky to those unfamiliar with this particular linguistic practice! Other examples include: ‘arvo’ for afternoon, ‘servo’ for petrol station, ‘brekkie’ for breakfast and ‘barbie’ for barbeque. Extended family is affectionately referred to as ‘rellies.’
In Modern Hebrew, relatives are k’rovim, which stems from karov, meaning ‘close.’ In Hebrew, related terms (no pun intended!) share the same shoresh or root. I am struck by the similarities between the Hebrew words for closeness karov and relatives k’rovim. Those who are close to us. Closest to us. And yet in Biblical Hebrew, the Torah calls sacrifices a variant of that same shoresh. Korban. A strong word, meaning a sacrifice to the Eternal One. The way we worshipped in ancient times, by bringing an offering to the sacrificial altar, to become closer to God.

Sh’mini, our parasha for this week, opens with instructions for sacrificial offerings. It then presents a disturbing episode:

‘Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Eternal strange fire, which had not been enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Eternal and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Eternal.’ (Leviticus 10:1-2)

Coming close to God requires an offering, a korban. It is supposed to be a symbol: an animal, a crop, a first fruit. In Temple times, it was something you have grown on your land and shlepped all the way to Jerusalem. It is not supposed to be your child.

Jewish tradition gives us varying explanations for why Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu were killed so suddenly, seemingly out of the blue. Ibn Ezra asserts that the reference to esh zara ‘strange fire,’ means that they gave an offering without being commanded to do so, and hence were punished by God.[1] Yet, giving a sacrifice that’s not requested doesn’t seem like a strong enough reason for instant death penalty.

There’s a midrash that attributes the reason to what happened back at Sinai. As Nadav and Avihu followed Moses and Aaron up the mountain, Nadav said to his brother: “Soon these two old ones will die and we will lead the congregation!” But God overheard, and was not impressed. God responded: “Who will bury who? They will bury you and they will lead the congregation.”[2] According to this midrash, the younger generation’s chutzpah and hubris led to their untimely demise. Similarly, Ibn Ezra’s interpretation rests on Nadav and Avihu’s impulsiveness and their deaths as a punishment for it.

Deep seated in each of these responses is a fear and awe of God’s might and power, coupled with the notion that there must be an explanation so it makes sense. Yet all these explanations ring hollow.

The punishment just doesn’t fit the action.

The response that rings truest for me is that of their father Aaron: VaYidom Aharon ‘and Aaron was silent’ (Leviticus 10:3). These two words form one of the most powerful sentences in the entire Torah.

For what other response is there to the death of a child? There is no explanation, no words that can explain, justify or make things better. No words that can take away the pain. And nothing can make it make sense. Nadav and Avihu may have died because they brought esh zara, strange fire before the Eternal One. But that doesn’t mean that they deserved it, or that they were somehow at fault. There is no explanation for tragedy.

[1] See Ibn Ezra on Leviticus 10:1.
[2] Sifra, Shemini, Melchilta d’Miluim 2 21

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