Ari Sacher

‘Caustic Soda’ Parashat Shemini 5778

Torah readers just love Parashat Shemini. It is a veritable treasure trove of cantillations. It contains one word[1] with both a telisha ketana and a gershayim — something that appears in only one other place in the Torah[2]. It contains a mercha-chefula[3], a cantillation that occurs only four other times in the entire Torah. And it contains the only instance in which Hashem addresses Himself solely to Aharon with the words [Shemot 10:8] “Hashem spoke to Aharon, saying.” This verse is so striking that some hold that it merits a special tune.

Why is Aharon addressed alone at this specific juncture? Aharon and his four sons have spent the last week preparing themselves to officiate in the Mishkan. Everything is ready for opening day. On the eighth day the entire nation, defying the laws of physics, somehow all gather at the courtyard of the Mishkan. And then suddenly it happens [Vayikra 9:24]: “Fire went forth from before Hashem and consumed the burnt offering and the fats upon the altar, and all the people saw, sang praises, and fell upon their faces”. Thunder and lightning, shock and awe. And then, just as suddenly, tragedy strikes [Vayikra 10:1-2]: “Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his pan, put fire in them and placed incense upon it, and they brought before Hashem a foreign fire, which He had not commanded them. Fire went forth from before Hashem and consumed them and they died before Hashem”. It was the greatest day of Aharon’s life. Everything had happened exactly the way it was supposed to happen, exactly the way he dreamed it would happen. He and his sons had received an overt Divine Seal of Approval. But in the blink of an eye, the best day of his life turned into the worst day of his life: two of his beloved sons die before his eyes. How does Aharon react to his tragedy? Does he weep? Does he cry out? The Torah sums up his reaction in two words [Vayikra 10:3]: “Va’yidom Aharon” – “Aharon was silent”. Rashi, quoting the Midrash, comments that “[Aharon did not complain. Consequently,] he was rewarded for his silence. And what reward did he receive? That Hashem addressed him exclusively in the [ensuing] passage regarding those who drink wine [as the verse says, ‘Hashem spoke to Aharon, saying…’]” Hashem spoke to Aharon, and only to Aharon, as a reward for his restraint.

Let’s take a closer look at what Hashem commands Aharon [Vayikra 10:9]: “Do not drink wine that will lead to intoxication, neither you nor your sons with you, when you go into the Tent of Meeting, so that you shall not die”. Serving in the Mishkan while hammered will get you nailed. Hashem continues [Vayikra 10:10-11]: “And to distinguish between holy and profane and between unclean and clean, and to instruct the children of Israel regarding all the statutes which Hashem has spoken to them through Moshe”. Based upon these verses, the Talmud in Tractate Keritot [13b] rules that just like an intoxicated Kohen is forbidden from serving in the Mishkan, so, too, an intoxicated judge is forbidden from adjudicating in court so that he can “distinguish between holy and profane”, and an intoxicated teacher is forbidden from teaching so that he can “instruct the children of Israel”. These verses seem to muddy the waters. It is reasonable that Hashem would reward Aharon for his silence by directly transmitting to him a commandment that is relevant to him. After all, service in the Mishkan was Aharon’s bailiwick. But why would Hashem reward him by directly transmitting to him a commandment that had nothing at all to do with him? Teaching the people was Moshe’s job, not Aharon’s. Why did the commandment “to instruct the children of Israel regarding all the statutes which Hashem has spoken to them through Moshe” go through Aharon?

Perhaps Hashem had another reason for speaking directly to Aharon. But first, a story. Each year, on the afternoon before Pesach, a group of us bake matzo, which we eat afterwards at the seder. I find the experience to be spiritually invigorating. This year when I returned home after the matzo-baking, I was greeted by my wife who told me that the bathroom shower had flooded, rendering it unusable. As we had about 20 guests for the seder, the drain had to be unclogged, by hook or by crook. The “hook” ameliorated the situation only slightly and so we went for the “crook” — caustic soda that thankfully my neighbour keeps in his home just for this kind of emergency. He poured a healthy amount of caustic soda down the drain and the drain literally exploded, clearing the blockage. Apparently, I also exploded, emitting an unrabbinic phrase that starts with the word “Holy…” While I spent the ensuing holiday marvelling over the wonders of sodium hydroxide, my neighbour spent it marvelling over my spontaneous use of unrabbinic language.

Back to Aharon. Recall that after the Divine fire came down from the heavens, the Torah tells us that the people “sang praises”. This is the translation of the “Complete Jewish Bible” for the Hebrew word “va’ya’ronu”. The translation of Rav Saadia Gaon is much more interesting[4]. According to Rav Saadia, the people did not sing a song like they did after the splitting of the Red Sea. Rather, they emitted a sort of spontaneous “Wow!” indicating their amazement and their joy. What these people had seen and felt was simply too great to be put into words. The sound that emanated from their mouths came not from their frontal cortex but from their belly.

Why did Nadav and Avihu offer a “foreign fire, which He had not commanded them”? One answer is that they were so enraptured by their closeness with Hashem that they had just experienced that they tried to take one step closer, which was, alas, one step too close. Their souls could not handle the holiness and they exploded[5]. But perhaps something else was happening. Perhaps Nadav and Avihu were so intoxicated by the spirituality of the moment that they, too, were thinking not with their frontal cortex but with their belly. Their brain told them to put their fire pans down, but the Divine fire was so beautiful and Hashem was so close that they just had to get closer. This can help explain why the commandment not to enter the Mishkan while in a state of intoxication was spoken directly to Aharon. Aharon and his descendants spent much of their lives in a place that both required and triggered a heightened state of spirituality that could be no less intoxicating than wine. Ask a person who has just finished davening at the Western Wall (kotel) if he didn’t feel something special. Of course he did. We all do[6]. Aharon lived with that “something special” feeling 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And so Hashem warned him that he would require constant vigilance to ensure that he would not be swept away by the intoxicating effects, as were his sons.

Another source of spiritual intoxication is the study of Torah. Rav J.B. Soloveichik describes the feeling he experiences while learning Torah as “Hashem looking over my shoulder”. Learning early in the morning while it is still dark and I am the only one awake in the house results in an indescribable feeling of intimacy. When two people learn Torah together, things get boisterous. The study-partners yell at each other, they laugh, they scold, their emotions oscillating together with the topic at hand. For me, walking into the study hall (Beit Midrash) of a yeshiva is always accompanied by a tingle. The sheer energy of hundreds of people learning Torah in one room is overpowering. A person adjudicating in a Jewish court (Beit Din) and a teacher instructing his students are prone to the same intoxication. They must maintain the same vigilance that the Kohen does, and so all three warnings were commanded directly through Aharon.

We all experience caustic soda explosion moments when our brains freeze and we react viscerally. The Torah demands that we remain perpetually vigil so that when our bellies do take over, the “Holy…” that we spontaneously blurt out is truly holy.


Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5778

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, and Tzvi ben Freida.

[1] Vayikra [10:4]

[2] Bereishit [5:29]

[3] Vayikra [10:1]

[4] Based on the interpretation of Rav Yosef Qafiḥ (Kapach).

[5] This answer is offered by many commentators, particularly by those with a Hassidic bent.

[6] This feeling can get out of hand. Psychologists define the “Jerusalem Syndrome” as mental phenomena involving religiously-themed obsessions, delusions or other experiences triggered by a visit to Jerusalem.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
Related Topics
Related Posts