Parashat Shemini

Overcoming And Learning From Our Mistakes

Recognizing our fallibility can lead us to compassion and empathy for our fellow humans, and bring us closer to God and others.

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Provided by KOLEL--The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada's Reform movement.


Last week, Aaron and his sons were dedicated as priests to serve in the Mishkan (Tabernacle). This week, in Shemini, the altar itself is dedicated, and the priestly service begins--but on a tragic note. Nadav and Avihu, Aaron's sons, bring a "strange fire" on their own initiative, and die right then and there. God warns Aaron directly that priests may never perform their service while drunk. Rules are given for the disposition of the day's korbanot (offerings). The last section of the parsahah lists which animals, birds, fish and insects are permitted or forbidden as food.

In Focus

"Moses said to Aaron: 'Approach the altar and make your sin-offering and your burnt-offering, to atone for yourself and for the people, and then offer the korban for the people, to atone for them, as God has commanded.' " (Leviticus 9:7)


Moses instructs Aaron as the priestly service begins: first he must make a "sin-offering" for himself, and then a general sin offering for the Israelites. These offerings were made to atone for inadvertent or accidental transgressions; they are called chatat offerings, which is related to the more familiar word chet, which is often translated as "missing the mark." After the sin-offerings, the regular sacrifices could begin.


Once again our parashah study begins with a comment by Rashi (medieval French commentator) that gets expanded and explained by later scholars. Rashi picks up on the apparently superfluous phrase "approach the altar" in the verse quoted above. It's not necessary to include this instruction--if Moses had simply said, "make your burnt offering," Aaron would have to "approach the altar" to do it!

So Rashi sees the extra instruction--"approach the altar"--as a sign that maybe Aaron hesitated for a minute. Thus Rashi writes:

Aaron was timid and afraid to touch [it]. Moses said to him: "Why are you ashamed? For this you were chosen!"

Rashi's comment can be read as simple encouragement; perhaps Aaron was in awe of his task, or didn't feel confident, or didn't know exactly what he was supposed to do.

On the other hand, all of those possibilities could be answered by noting that Moses and Aaron had been together all throughout the Exodus adventure, and had been through experiences like the plagues in Egypt, the splitting of the sea, and the giving of the Torah, any of which might have been more awe-inspiring than performing the priestly service!

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Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger

Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger is currently the rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Poughkeepsie, NY. A former student at Kolel, he served as Kolel's Director of Outreach from late 1999-2001. He was ordained in the first graduating class of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism, and holds a Master's of Environmental Studies from York University in Toronto.