Parashat Shemini

Boundaries, Sanctity, And Silence

Although we can attempt to understand the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, we are ultimately limited and often feel powerless in the face of God.

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["And Aaron was silent." Leviticus 10:3] He was rewarded for his silence. And what was his reward? That the subsequent address (by God) was to him alone (Rashi). How do we know...that Aaron remained silent because he had accepted God's judgment? Couldn't he have remained silent simply because he was faced with the might of God against him, while inwardly he was seething?... It is a basic rule that God only appears to a person who is not sad or in mourning. Had Aaron been silent because of his mourning, God would never have appeared to him at that time (Tzeror Ha-mor in Torah Gems, volume 2, pp. 268-269).

In many circumstances, the feeling of a lack of power to alter circumstances is a greater problem to a father than to a mother.... Many sociologists would agree that a man...is more accustomed to bending events to meet his wishes. That he was more unable to control happenings surrounding the most important thing in his life...might be quite difficult to accept for such a father (Harriet Sarnoff Schiff, The Bereaved Parent, pp. 46 ff).

["Through those near to Me I show Myself holy." Leviticus 10:3] "Holiness"...is a category of interpretation and valuation peculiar to the sphere of religion.... We generally take "holy" as meaning "completely good".... But this common usage is inaccurate. It is true that all this moral significance is contained in the word "holy," but it includes an addition.... Accordingly, it is worthwhile...to find a word to stand for this element in isolation, this "extra" in the meaning of "holy" above and beyond the meaning of goodness.... [It] cannot, strictly speaking, be taught: It can only be evoked, awakened in the mind; as everything that comes of the spirit must be awakened (Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, pp. 5-7).

Your Guide

The concept of k'dushah (holiness) has to do with separating some things from others: Holy things have boundaries around them that are to be respected. The Biur explains that the transgression of Aaron's sons was that they violated those boundaries. At the same time, God's response is, "Through those near to Me I show Myself holy." How do you understand the tension between intimacy with the Divine and the need to respect the boundaries that separate the Divine from all else?

According to Tzeror Ha-mor, what is the reason for Aaron's silence? Do you agree with his contention that God would not have appeared to Aaron if Aaron had been sad or in mourning? Why?

Do you think, as Schiff does, that it is more difficult for a father than it is for a mother to handle feelings of powerlessness like those that stem from the seemingly inexplicable death of one's child?

Part of the religious commitment among Jews of all movements is a desire to promote k'dushah in the world and in everyday life. Yet Reform Judaism once emphasized only the "rational" aspects of religion while jettisoning those elements that were "nonrational." How do Reform Jews understand the concept of k'dushahtoday? Is it still synonymous with that which is "perfectly good" and "completely moral," or are there aspects of k'dushah, as Rudolf Otto maintains, that are independent of goodness and morality but nevertheless have to be acknowledged and affirmed?

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Rabbi Cary Kozberg

Rabbi Cary Kozberg is director of spiritual care at Wexner Heritage Village in Columbus, Ohio.