Five Rashis, Shmini: When to Act, When Not To

A project in memory of Baruch Leib Hakohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya.

Welcome back from Pesach to a pretty busy season for Five Rashis a week—the next three weeks have five parashiyot to them! (I will try to do Tazria by the end of this week, so my Israeli readers will have at least something for this Shabbat, until we Chutznikim catch up). I hope to stagger them enough that it’s not overwhelming, but I do want to produce Five Rashis for each parasha by the end of this year, so hold on, it’s going to be busy for a bit.

Angst and the Completion of the Mishkan

Three Rashis in the first chapter portray Aharon and the Jewish people as anxiety-ridden about the construction of the Mishkan. In 9;7, Moshe tells Aharon, קרב אל המזבח, approach the altar, which Rashi takes to imply a hesitance on Aharon’s part; he needed Moshe’s reassurance that he was chosen for the job.

Rashi clarifies the source of his hesitance on the words ויבא משה ואהרן, 9;23. His second explanation for why Moshe and Aharon entered the Mishkan, is that Aharon assumed the failure of the Divine Presence to appear was his fault, that Hashem had found him wanting. Upset, he asks Moshe why he had embarrassed him, and Moshe enters with him, they pray together, and the Divine Presence comes down.

When they come out to bless the nation, Rashi sees the people as sharing Aharon’s worries. In their view, seven days of dedication had passed, with no Divine Presence. Ashamed, they complained to Moshe that they’d done all this work in the hopes of securing the Presence, as proof that the sin of the Golden Calf had been atoned (remember that, for Rashi, the building of the Mishkan was to have a place to atone for that sin). The whole ceremony leading up to this moment was Moshe’s response, culminating in the Presence taking up residence in the Mishkan.

Rashi here gives the events a more human cast than the supernatural elements would seem to allow. For all that they were operating in a world where the Divine Presence could and would be visible, they worried about their worthiness, as many of us might. Having failed so fully as to build and worship the Calf, Moshe’s assurances that the Mishkan would offer a way out and a way forward were heartening but not convincing. Until the Presence appeared—and when it seemed to take longer than expected– their anxieties came to the fore, an expression of their awareness that they had no right to expect this, indeed should probably expect failure. Making the joy of success that much greater.

An Alternative to Theodicy

When Nadav and Avihu are killed during the dedication ceremonies, Moshe (10;3) tells his brother that this is an expression of Hashem’s general practice of sanctifying Himself, as it were, with those closest to Him, ועל פני כל העם אכבד, loosely translated as “I will be honored upon the whole nation.” Rashi explains that when Hashem enacts justice upon the righteous, the rest of us are filled with awe and fear, and come to realize Hashem’s greatness—if the righteous are so lacking by Hashem’s standards as to deserve such punishments, all the more so the wicked.

His assumption about people’s reactions contrasts with what we see today. For Rashi, witnesses to Nadav and Avihu’s death would say, if they deserved that punishment, how much more do we deserve! Whereas today, it seems to me, people would more likely say, how could God punish two such righteous people that way?  And then struggle with the question of God’s justice, and so on. Suggesting that sometimes our first reaction is mistaken, and puts us on a path that blocks off realizations we should have had.

The proper reaction to the righteous’ suffering, Rashi is saying, is to learn from them, kal va-chomer, all the more so, to ourselves.  When we don’t, we not only are left with struggles of faith, we forego an opportunity to remind ourselves of how awesome God is, how strict His justice could legitimately be, and to recognize how mercifully we are generally treated.

Aharon Responds, His Sons Do Not

In 10;16, Moshe notices that one of the sacrifices was burnt rather than being eaten and becomes angry with Aharon’s remaining two sons, rebuking them for the next two verses. 10;19 records Aharon’s response; on the words וידבר אהרן, Rashi wonders why Aharon stepped in if Moshe addressed his words to Elazar and Itamar.

He understands that Moshe actually intended his words for Aharon as well, but directed them at the sons, as a sign of respect for his brother. They in turn refrained from answering because it would have been disrespectful to speak up in front of their father. As proof that they chose to stay silent rather than lacking for what to say, Rashi points out that in Bamidbar 31;21, Elazar elucidated how to kasher metal items captured in war, in the presence of Moshe and the tribal heads.  When it was time to speak, he was perfectly capable.

Rashi takes for granted two important conversational rules. First, that even though Aharon deserved the same reproach as his sons (in Moshe’s view), Moshe refrained from addressing him, out of respect. The sons stayed silent, despite being unfairly admonished, waiting for their father and teacher to handle the conversation.

How we speak, to whom, and when are all important pieces of the puzzle.

Purifying Ourselves for Holidays

11;8 prohibits touching the carcasses of nonkosher animals, which seems to imply that ordinary Jews must avoid that form of ritual impurity, when we know that’s not true. As Rashi points out, if only priests have to avoid corpse-impurity, the highest form of impurity in Judaism, all the more so that non-priests need not worry about animal carcass impurity.

He answers that this verse reflects the requirement to become ritually pure on holidays, a requirement Rambam includes in Laws of Food-Impurity 16;7, as a way to be able to enter the Beit HaMikdash on holidays. There is no general requirement to go to the Beit haMikdash, but three times a year, we were supposed to be sure that we were able to celebrate in the presence of the most direct Presence we have, and that required us first becoming ritually purified in all ways. As indicated by this verse’s call to avoid touching carcasses that would render us impure.

It Must Not Be Done

In chapter 11, verses 13 and 41, the Torah speaks in the passive voice about not eating certain birds and vermin, saying they should not be eaten, not just telling us not to eat. Both times, Rashi sees this as broadening the prohibition, that it also bans feeding these foods to others, particularly children.

While minors are not generally obligated in mitzvot, and parents are only obligated to train them to be ready to observe the Torah when they reach adulthood, these prohibitions show that some actions are meant to be so inimical to Jews that we do not even let young children do them. Non-kosher birds, and vermin, are not only not allowed, they are so bad that we have to refrain from giving them to our children (for reasons the Torah does not define explicitly).

Stepping Forward, Stepping Back

Looking over the five Rashis we found, we see Aharon and the Jews worried about whether their actions have had the desired effect, we see the Jews being expected to recognize God’s justice in the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, Moshe not speaking to his brother when called for, Elazar and Itamar staying silent when they might have responded to the rebuke directed at them, and then two occasions to stay away from certain foods, with more significant impact than we might have assumed.

When to act, when not to, as a theme of Parashat Shmini.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
Related Topics
Related Posts