Weekly Torah portion: Parshat Shemini

Torah portion Tuesdays: Parshat Shemini

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Torah portion Tuesdays is our weekly feature where Cantor Matt Axelrod breaks down each week’s passage so that budding bar and bat mitzvah students can better understand and relate to the text.

Sad times in the Israelite camp.

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shemini, tells a story cloaked in mystery. Often, these kinds of episodes in the Torah are the most interesting and fascinating, because they force the reader to fill in a lot of the missing details and interpret the events in various ways.

There is very little text devoted to what must have been a devastating tragedy. Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, prepare to bring a routine sacrifice to the altar, Aaron was the guy who was in charge of this entire procedure, and so far we have a pleasant and routine sentence suggesting that his two sons are following in their father’s footsteps.

Then something goes horribly wrong, and we’re not sure what happened.

The Torah, in one of its most enigmatic passages, tells us that Nadav and Avihu brought “strange fire” as part of their sacrifice. Immediately, God punishes them with death, as they themselves are burned by a huge fire.

And what was Aaron’s reaction to this horror? He doesn’t say a word. The Torah tells us that he remains silent.

What are we to make of this bizarre and disturbing episode?

There are a few clues as to how we might understand what’s going on here. In the very next paragraph, God instructs Aaron that no one is to enter the holy space where they make sacrifices if they’ve been drinking wine. God specifically says to Aaron, “you or your sons.” And then further explains “this is a law for all times.”

Isn’t it curious that this rule is mentioned immediately after Nadav and Avihu are killed?

Many commentators have made the connection between these two bits of text and concluded that Nadav and Avihu must have been heavily intoxicated when they brought their sacrifice. This, of course, was utterly insulting to God and demonstrated a complete lack of holiness and respect. Going even further with this scenario, it wasn’t God who brought about their deaths, but rather their own irresponsible actions. It seems credible to imagine two very drunk men building a large fire and then accidentally catching their clothes on fire or falling over in the flames.

I’m amazed at the relevance and foresight of this particular text written thousands of years ago. It resonates as strongly as ever in modern times. The Torah didn’t outlaw alcohol or make it a sin to imbibe. Instead, it told us that one was forbidden to be under the influence while performing an important and holy duty, and then showed us the inevitable consequences of those actions.

Today, we can easily make the connection between “Don’t drink and sacrifice” to “Don’t drink and drive,” or a myriad other ways that consuming alcohol irresponsibly can result in ruined lives and tragic events. In the Torah reading, Aaron never complained to God or accused God of being unfair or cruel. In fact, he knew that it was his sons’ unsafe and reckless actions that caused their deaths, and he had nothing to say.

A child is taught to start to thinking responsibly and making mature decisions when becoming a bar or bat mitzvah. So, how will you make sure that the tragedy of Nadav and Avihu never happens again?

Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at cantormatt@mattaxelrod.com.

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