Beth Elohim Messianic Synagogue
Parashah #26: Sh’mini (Eighth) Vayikra (Leviticus) 9:1-11:47
Haftarah: Sh’mu’el Bet (2 Samuel) 6:1-19
B’rit Chadashah: 1 Peter 1:14-16
The process of consecrating the place G-d would occupy with His presence in the sanctuary continues; the instructions for the offerings were given, and Aharon and his sons are consecrated and anointed as Kohanim. This process has gone on for seven days. Now comes the eighth day when the service of the mishkan is to begin. All the people whose hearts have moved them played their part in constructing what was to become a visible home for G-d’s presence on earth. All of a sudden, just after Aharon blessed the people and the glory of G-d appeared to all the people, our attention is drawn to a shocking turn of events:
“But Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aharon, each took his censer, put fire in it, laid incense on it, and offered unauthorized fire before Adonai, something He had not ordered them to do. At this, fire came forth from the presence of Adonai and consumed them, so that they died in the presence of Adonai. Moshe said to Aharon, ‘This is what Adonai said: “Through those who are near me I will be consecrated, and before all the people I will be glorified.” Aharon kept silent” (10:1-3).
Celebration turned to tragedy. The two eldest sons of Aaron die. The sages and commentators offer many explanations including the following: Nadav and Avihu died because they entered the holy of holies; they were not wearing the requisite clothes; they took fire from the kitchen, not the altar; they did not consult Moses and Aaron; nor did they consult one another. According to some they were guilty of being drunk. They were impatient to assume leadership roles themselves; and they did not marry, considering themselves above such things. Yet others see their deaths as delayed punishment for an earlier sin, when, at Mount Sinai they “ate and drank” in the presence of God (Ex. 24: 9-11).
These interpretations represent close readings of the four places in the Torah which Nadav and Avihu’s death is mentioned (Lev. 10: 2, 16: 1, Num. 3: 4, 26: 61), as well as the reference to their presence on Mount Sinai. Each is a profound meditation on the dangers of over-enthusiasm in the religious life. However, the simplest explanation is the one explicit in the Torah itself. Nadav and Avihu died because they offered unauthorized (literally “strange”) fire – meaning “that which was not commanded.” To understand the significance of this we must go back to first principles (Covenant and Conversation, Terumah) and remind ourselves of the meaning of kadosh, “holy”, and thus of mikdash as the home of the holy.
The holy is that segment of time and space G-d has reserved for His presence. Creation involves concealment. The word olam, universe, is semantically linked to the word ne’elam, “hidden”. To give mankind some of His own creative powers – the use of language to think, communicate, understand, imagine alternative futures and choose between them – G-d necessarily had to do more than create humans. He withdrew part of Himself to make room for “the other”; that is for humanity. In kabbalah this is called (tzimtzum) to create space for human action. No single act more profoundly indicates the love and mercy implicit in creation. G-d as we encounter Him in the Torah is like a parent who knows He must hold back, let go, refrain from intervening, and even let them go through hardships and hurt so they may become responsible and mature. But there is a limit. To withdraw Himself entirely would be equivalent to abandoning the world, deserting his own children. G-d promises that He will never leave those who love Him and follow His commands. So, how does he leave a presence on earth?
The biblical answer is not philosophical as promoted by Plato and Descartes as one that applies universally, that is at all times and in all places. But there is no answer that applies to all times and places. That is why philosophy cannot and never will understand the apparent contradiction between divine creation and human freewill, or between divine presence and the empirical world in which we reflect, choose and act.
Jewish thought is counter-philosophical. It insists that truths are embodied precisely in particular times and places. There are holy times (the seventh day, seventh month, seventh year, and the end of seven septennial cycles, the jubilee). There are holy people (the children of Israel as a whole; within them, the Levi’im, and within them the Kohanim). And there is holy space (eventually, Israel; within that, Jerusalem; within that the Temple; in the desert, they were the mishkan, the holy, and the Holy of Holies).
The holy is that point of time and space in which the presence of G-d is encountered by tzimtzum – self-renunciation – on the part of mankind. Just as G-d makes space for man by an act of self-limitation, so man makes space for G-d by an act of self-limitation. This is illustrated with the narrative of Jacob’s ladder where we learn through examination of all that is going on in the narrative that, just as the angels are ascending and descending, we must descend in self in order to ascend in our relationship to G-d. This is necessarily done through Yahshua as The way, The Truth, and The Life; the side supports on the ladder. Our lives, the trials and tribulations we endure are the horizontal rungs. In kabbalah, we learn that our goal is to learn how to receive the Light in order to reflect it back into the world that we may glorify G-d, rather than trying to hoard it for ourselves. Through this learning process and applying it to our lives, we have opportunities to climb the ladder and ascend in our relationship to G-d. The holy is where G-d is experienced as absolute presence. Not accidentally but essentially, this can only take place through the total renunciation of human will and initiative. That is not because G-d does not value human will and initiative. To the contrary: G-d has empowered mankind to use them to become His “partners in the work of creation”; to ascend the ladder.
However, to be true to God’s purposes, there must be times and places at which humanity experiences the reality of the divine. Those times and places require absolute obedience. There is no room for reinterpreting what we “think” G-d wants us to do or changing His commands for our convenience. The most fundamental mistake – the mistake of Nadav and Avihu – is to take the powers that belong to man’s encounter with the world, and apply them to man’s encounter with the Divine. Had Nadav and Avihu used their own initiative to fight evil and injustice they would have been heroes. Because they decided they could worship G-d “their way”, they used their own initiative in the arena of the holy; they asserted their own presence in the absolute presence of God. They “expanded” themselves, so to speak, crossing a boundary that G-d commanded be made between man and Himself. That is why they died.
We err if we think of God as capricious, jealous, angry as humans define these terms; a myth spread by early Christianity in an attempt to define itself as the religion of love, superseding the cruel/harsh/retributive God of the “Old Testament”. When the Torah itself uses such language it “speaks in the language of humanity” – that is to say, anthropomorphically and metaphorically so people will understand. The Old Testament is half of the love story of YHVH/Yahshua for His creation that survives even though man has repeatedly broken covenants and vows made to G-d. G-d does not break His covenants out of His love and mercy. G-d desires for us to encounter Him because we need Him; In order for us to develop and grow in a right relationship to Him, we must understand that although He loves us beyond what we will ever understand in this world, that love mandates obedience out of love that sometimes requires us to be silent in His presence. To enter holy space and time requires total humility; renunciation of our initiative and desire. For example, although we may want to dance, sing, or jump up and down, there are times this behavior is not appropriate. G-d is very clear on how we are to behave in our interactions with Him and man; even more so, when we are in His presence.
The significance of this fact cannot be over-estimated. When we confuse G-d’s will with our will, we turn the holy (the source of life) into something unholy and a source of death. The classic example of this is “holy war” – investing imperialism (the desire to rule over other people) with the cloak of sanctity as if conquest and forced conversions were G-d’s will. The story of Nadav and Avihu reminds us yet again of the warning first spelled out in the days of Cain and Abel. The first act of worship led to the first murder. Like nuclear fission, worship generates power, which can be benign but can also be profoundly dangerous.
The episode of Nadav and Avihu is written in three kinds of fire. First there is the fire from heaven: Fire came forth from before G-d and consumed the burnt offering … (9:24)
This was the fire of favor, consummating the service of the sanctuary. Then came the “unauthorized fire” offered by the two sons: Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before G-d, which He had not instructed them to offer. (10:1)
Then there was the counter-fire from heaven: Fire came forth from before G-d, and it consumed them so that they died before G-d. (10:2)
The message is simple and deadly serious: Let’s revisit 10:3: “Through those who are near me I will be consecrated, and before all the people I will be glorified.” ‘Aharon kept silent.’” Aharon was silent. Furthermore, he was instructed not to publicly mourn. Aharon was to set the example as the Kohen before the people. Rather, the whole house of Israel would mourn because of what had just happened. G-d would be glorified before all the people; no questions; no arguments.
In the B’rit Chadashah we are reminded that we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12); just as G-d expected of the Old Testament believers- Israel and their fellow travelers. If we think we can develop a true relationship with the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by reinterpreting, paraphrasing, adding to, or subtracting from G-d’s commands/Torah, we are sorely mislead and will reap what we sow( Rev. 22:18-19).
Haftarah: Sh’mu’el Bet (2 Samuel) 6:1-19
This narrative presents another example of how serious G-d is about how we are to approach Him and how we are to treat the holy things. The scene is where David is bringing the ark of G-d to the City of David. According to G-d’s command regarding the transport of the ark, it was to be carried on the shoulders of two of the Levites with the poles always in the rings attached to the ark (Ex. 25:10-16; Num.4). This is where David got in trouble. David thought the best way to move the ark was on a cart (2 Samuel 6:3). So they got a new cart and set the ark on the cart and started to transport it, but something happened. Suddenly there’s a death (2 Samuel 6:7). What did Uzzah do to deserve death?
2 Samuel 6:6, “And when they came to Nachon’s threshing floor, Uzzah put forth his hand to the ark of G-d, and took hold of it; for the oxen shook it.”
That’s all he did. After all, it’s a natural thing to do; if it’s going to drop you’ve got to grab it! But it wouldn’t have ever dropped if they would have done it right.
What’s the right way? The Levites were the ones who were supposed to carry the ark, the poles were to be put through the little ringlets at the bottom of the ark, the poles were to be placed on the shoulders of these specially chosen men, and they were to balance it as they carried it from one place to another. And David didn’t do that. He took a convenient route and changed the details to fit the expediency of the hour.
David got very upset with G-d when he should have been upset with himself (2 Samuel 6:8). David was angry with G-d, but G-d was angry with David. He contributed to the sin of Uzzah who was a Levite and knew better than to touch the ark, even if it was leaning! David knew the rules, yet he decided he had a better way to transport the ark than the way G-d commanded. We seek the Lord’s Will and we reach out on a lark and we want to do “that”, so, in expediency or convenience or because we’re in a hurry, we make “that” decision. G-d reminds us many times in the Old Testament and the B’rit Chadashah that if we want to have a heart for G-d and a meaningful relationship with Him, we must take the time to check His Torah for guidance and not “play it by ear.” If we try to cut corners, it will result in hurt and possibly death; either our own, or those around us.
Uzzah undoubtedly meant well. On the surface he did a useful, helpful, even noble thing. But he did not do the right thing, and it cost him his life. In this strange circumstance, brought about because David, the leader, wanted to do things his way, the right thing would have been to let the ark touch the earth instead of Uzzah’s sinful hands.
David assembled thousands of people and had glorious music played in celebration of the Ark’s return to Jerusalem. It would have been much better had he quietly followed the instructions and done it right. Enthusiasm must be accomplished with obedience. It might be nice to do a nice thing, but it must be the right thing.
B’rit Chadashah: 1 Peter 1:14-16
“As people who obey G-d, do not let yourselves be shaped by the evil desires you used to have when you were still ignorant. On the contrary, following the Holy One who called you, become holy yourselves in your entire way of life; since the Tanakh says, ‘You are to be holy because I am holy.”
Although verse 17 is not included in the B’rit Chadashah section for this lesson, it is most applicable: “ Also , if you are addressing as Father the one who judges impartially according to each person’s actions, you should live out your temporary stay on earth in fear.”
Nadav, Avihu, and David were missing this vital ingredient in their behavior towards G-d in the specific episode in their lives. We are to have a loving fear of G-d; one of respect and awe that motivates us to obedience out of love and reverence for His sovereignty and authority. He provides us instruction and directions for our ultimate benefit. Through our obedience out of love and fear he will ultimately be glorified; His Name becoming known among the nations. This is confirmed in 1 Peter 2:11-12: “Dear friends, I urge you as aliens and temporary residents not to give in to the desires of your old nature, which keep warring against you; but to live such good lives among the pagans that even though they now speak against you as evil-doers, they will, as a result of seeing your good actions, give glory to G-d on the Day of his coming.”
May His Name be glorified in all things!
Rabbi Tamah Davis-Hart
Beth Elohim Messianic Synagogue