Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah-Sh’mini

I am staring at a text that affirms the priesthood and its relationship with a loving God. The Tabernacle stands open and ready for business. The priests prepared the altar for the initial sacrifice. The community prepares to celebrate the “Grand Opening” of God’s place. The priests cook the meat and splatter the blood all over the altar while the people sing and revel in the messy celebration. In the midst of all this, two “rogue” priests die. The fire from the altar consumes their souls but does not burn their bodies. They brought a divergent offering to the altar; one not prescribed by the altar’s ultimate host, God.

Some argue that they died because it was an offering other than that which God wanted. Others maintain that they must have been drunk and in approaching the altar inebriated, they committed the ultimate of blasphemes. Torah commentators are obsessed with harshly judging Nadav and Avihu (the young priests who perished). The text does not give us their motivation. As to the whole matter, all I can say is that, over the last two thousand years, we have experienced profound relationships with God, and not once have we lined the altar with the blood, fat, and meat of an animal. Ultimately, the disagreement did not keep the sacrifice … or reinstate the sacrifice. Nor, did it keep us from God.

Our great sage Maimonides, in the Guide for the Perplexed, regards the sacrifices as a concession to a new and evolving nation, an attempt to make change happen at an appropriate speed (so as not to alienate people). He suggested the sacrifice as a gradually weaning away from ancient pagan idolatry. If the concept of sacrificing had value, it was to teach us (allegorically) that we find righteousness in regularly bringing our most exceptional selves to the altar of engagement with God and with each other.

Maybe, Nadav and Avihu felt that this cult worship experience was blasphemous? Maybe their alien fire sought to protest the introduction of pagan idolatry to a people who had just left Egypt, freed from the slavery to Pharaoh and to Pharaoh’s ritual offering to false gods. I have posited that, sometimes, bringing the “alien fire” costs us our lives, but that the “alien fire” was a more righteous fire than the one currently in vogue. Martin Luther King, Rabbi Akiva, Jesus, and a litany of others lost their lives bringing fire to the altar that “bucked” the pervasive order. We are blessed in the change that they brought.

When I read this text, though, I struggle to get past the entire chapter devoted to detailing the pomp and circumstance of the ritual that begins with a mass slaughter of animals, the spraying, displaying, and burning of their parts, and the party atmosphere that follows. More so, I struggle that the death of two of Aaron’s sons, who are themselves “High Priests,” gets two verses and no details. For me, this is one of those places where the text screams to be read and reread. I don’t think we have done that. Too often, we blindly accept the literal text, giving no critical thought to the real messages the author intended, conveyed through stylistic devices. More problematic is the truth that once we read what someone else has to say about a text, it becomes our “gospel” because it is easier just to adopt that understanding and not invest ourselves in finding our own.

We have to think for ourselves. Sometimes we find ourselves in thoughts completely outside of the accepted norms. Yes, this can be dangerous territory, but imagine a world where Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, Einstein, King all simply accepted the status quo. We never have to agree on matters to both grow from a meaningful conversation about them. SO much needs to evolve in life. The more time and distance we put between us, the less chance there is of any positive change occurring … ever. Let’s get past our prejudices and our complacency … let’s talk. Shabbat Shalom.