Yechiel Shaffer
The Rabbi of Pikesville Jewish Congregation in MD

Playing with Fire: Opening Up a Mikdash (Me’at)

This week we conclude our study of the book of Vayikra (Leviticus). So much of this book is atypical of our regular Torah study experience. It is within the book of Vayikra we have for us the most significant warning in how we tackle what comes next for our Shuls and a model for how we might think about tragedy and rebuilding.

Up until Vayikra we have been gripped by the dramatic conflict between brothers, by dynamic and charismatic personalities, by cruel, murder-driven dictators, and by the vision, and morality of our greatest leader, Moshe. The Torah thus far has been defined by miracles and creation. By stories of the discovery of one God, and the sharing of Mitzvot that demonstrates our dedication to Him. All of this changes in Vayikra. The books of Bereishit (Genesis), Shemot (Exodus), and Bamidbar (Numbers) have compelling stories, that are peppered by various instructions and Mitzvot. There is little offered outside of the story that is being told. While the Torah is not to be viewed as a history book that tells a story, one cannot ignore that the Torah uses story telling as a medium for sharing instructions and values.

It is therefore, very noticeable that the book of Vayikra does not work within the context of a story. It exists outside of a plot, and outside of a narrative, and thus, outside of time itself. One could read the final verses of the book of Shemot and the first verses of the book of Bamidbar, and not miss a beat. Vayikra exists outside of the context of time.

The absence of time in Vayikra, should resonate with us way more than it has ever before. As we have all shifted into our new reality, time has taken on a less significant role in our lives. Many have joked that we now have two types of day in our week: Shabbat and ‘not-Shabbat’. I have found some comfort in reminiscing about the classic 1993, Bill Murray movie: Groundhog Day.

Vayikra is dedicated to the laws that are relevant to inaugurating and the running of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). These laws have taken on new meaning  for us as we are have not gathered in our Shuls for the majority of Vayikra.

As the leadership of States across America begin to talk about recovery, and start tentatively exploring when may be right to begin ‘phase 1’, the one moment in the book of Vayikra that does tell us a story should be clear in our minds, as we think about how and when we reopen our Shuls (Vayikra 9:1):

וַיְהִי֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֔י קָרָ֣א מֹשֶׁ֔ה לְאַהֲרֹ֖ן וּלְבָנָ֑יו וּלְזִקְנֵ֖י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

On the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel.

While this mysterious ‘eighth day’ isn’t explicitly defined (there is an argument between Rashi and the Ibn Ezra what date this is exactly), it is the beginning of the  most significant story recorded in Vayikra. This day is the first day in which services begin in the newly dedicated Mishkan. The Jewish people, led by Moshe and Aharon, wait outside this new sanctuary with bated breath. They wait to enter – they wait for permission to serve God in His new home.

Moshe instructs Aharon to bring various sacrifices that will establish him as the High Priest and then, the hope is that Aharon will be permitted to enter the Mishkan and start worshipping. As we all wait to enter our holy places, these attempts to understand when the right moment to enter the Mishkan resonates. The calls by our religious leaders for a greater commitment to charity and prayer, feel like the sacrifices of Aharon to bring God’s presence into the midst of the people. Chapter 9 of Vayikra concludes with a blessing offered by Aharon, for the people, and seemingly God’s presence arrives. A great fire comes down and consumes all of the sacrifices being offered, “and all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces.”

In a deeply dramatic moment, we are moved by the first time God’s new home, the Mishkan, is used to create connection between God and His people. That’s why what immediately comes next has to cause us to pause and be careful as we think about our desire to open our Shuls again.

Chapter 10 of Vaykira shares with us a story that is happening simultaneously, as Chapter 9, when Aharon and the people wait for permission from God to enter. Famously, Aharon’s own sons, the righteous Nadav and Avihu, are inside the Mishkan already starting the service. They are consumed by a fire that enters their nostrils, and destroys their lungs. The Torah leaves room to interpret their mistake, and Aharon’s reaction to their passing. Aharon is silent when he hears this tragic news. It is in that poignant moment we reflect and speculate over what is going through Aharon’s mind.

If only they had waited one more day to enter, if only they had understood how dangerous it can be to go in without permission. Yes, Nadav and Avihu [possibly] had the holiest of intentions. They brought the incense because of their deep commitment to God, and serving Him in His new home. But, there are moments where patience is what God wants from us. Admittedly, we are no good at being patient which is why it is perhaps one of the hardest tests that Nadav and Avihu fail to overcome. Where Moshe and Aharon expressed patience, and obedience, waiting for God to call out to them, to invite them in, Nadav and Avihu showed a naive enthusiasm to ‘get the show started’.

We so deeply miss communal life. Praying together, harmonizing with each other, watching our children build relationships in our communities, and sharing a Kiddush together, are features of Synagogue life that we are desperately seeking to return to. And while, we know that there is an obligation to pray with a Minyan, and we are motivated to return to those prayers, we need to be sure that God has invited us back in. If He hasn’t, if we bring an ‘alien fire’ into our Synagogues, not because our intentions are sinister but rather because we haven’t waited for God’s invitation, we risk suffering, God forbid, the same fate as Nadav and Avihu.

I pray each day to return to my synagogue. As we each sit alone in our in our homes, waiting outside of our holy places for the invitation of God to come back, I hope that we are watching carefully for the right moment where God accepts our sacrifices and pleas, and invites us back into His home.

As we conclude Sefer Vayikra, often the hardest of books in the Torah to relate too, we have found new meaning in the role of sacrifice, sanctuary and sanctity. We pray for good health, for wisdom, for insight and for an unwavering commitment to Jewish community. We also pray that we receive that invitation to enter the sanctuary of God, speedily in our days.

About the Author
Formerly the Assistant Rabbi of Cong. Ohab Zedek in NYC, and The Hampton Synagogue, Rabbi Yechiel Shaffer is the Rabbi of the growing, young community, Pikesville Jewish Congregation, in Pikesville, MD.
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