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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D'var Torah

"A man's gotta know his limitations."

(Clint Eastwood as Inspector "Dirty Harry" Callahan)

On what was to be the happiest day of his life--the consecration of his sons and himself to God's service--Aaron experiences the deepest tragedy of his life: the deaths of two of his sons, Nadab and Abihu. Moses immediately offers Aaron a reason for this most unexpected occurrence, to which Aaron responds with silence.

Both the tragedy and Aaron's response raise many questions. What exactly was the "sin" of the two men? Was it the act per se, or was it their attitude? Was it arrogance, as many Sages believe, or was it an overabundance of religious passion, as others maintain? Furthermore, how could God allow this life-cycle event, which was both religiously and personally significant, to be marred?

Any parent who has lost a child--whether a young child or an adult child--certainly knows the feelings we would have expected of Aaron. Entrusted with power, authority, and influence, he is suddenly powerless, even impotent. And certainly his sense of confusion is heightened by the paradoxical words "Through those near to Me I show Myself holy:" That is, through those who know Me most intimately I will maintain my "Otherness."

Perhaps one of the hard lessons to be learned here is that affirming sanctity is ultimately about maintaining limits and boundaries. If Nadab and Abihu were indeed too zealous in their devotion by bringing to the altar that which God had not commanded, perhaps their sin was that they "broke through" those boundaries and thus compromised the sanctity of the moment and the Sanctuary itself.

Compare this with God's warning to Moses (in Exodus 19:12-13 and 21) that the people should not approach the mountain. Evidently, passion, even when it is religiously motivated, will ultimately compromise sanctity. Perhaps this is one reason why religious fanaticism is almost always held suspect.

At the same time, the suddenness of the men's deaths and the vagueness about why they died painfully remind us that when it comes to "the idea of the holy:" (1) Not every question of "why?" has a satisfactory answer; (2) Because we are not God, there are limits to what we as human beings can understand and thus control; (3) In the presence of One who is supreme above all creatures, we feel our limitations and powerlessness most keenly.

Indeed, there are times when awareness of the "awe-ful" can only be experienced in the midst of the dreadful.

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Rabbi Cary Kozberg

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