Esor Ben-Sorek
Esor Ben-Sorek

Shameful SHEMINI

I have often been sorely troubled by the Torah portion which was read in synagogues last week. Parshat Shemini, from the 10th chapter Of the Book of Leviticus (Vayikra) begins with the disturbing death of High Priest Aaron’s two sons.

“Now Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense upon it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the Lord meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And I assert My authority before all the people’.

And Aaron was silent.

At the horrible sight of his two dead sons, Aaron, the father remained silent. Not a tear fell. Not a cry was heard. Not a word was spoken.

It happened on the eighth day of the consecration of the mizbayach (altar of sacrifice). There was great joy and revelry. Nadab and Abihu were righteous priests who wanted to express their love to God by offering a sacrifice, even though God has not demanded it of them. Nevertheless, their religious fervor and desire to be faithful servants to God burned deep inside them and their unrequired act burned the life out of them. Though their bodies were not consumed by fire, they died of the smoke inhalation. Why? Why did two young, unmarried sons of the High Priest have to die?

The Torah only states that their offering was not demanded of God. That they had acted on their own without Divine authority.

Centuries later, our commentators created their own explanations, none that were written in the Torah and all which are unacceptable to me.
One commentator explains that the two men were drunk with wine which was prohibited to the priestly class. (No mention of it in the Torah story).
Another commentator states that the two men said to one another, “our father is the High Priest, our Uncle Moses is the lawgiver, we are princes of our tribe. No woman is worthy for us to marry”.

And a third commentator adds, “Nadab and Abihu remarked that their father and their uncle were old and should be approaching death. Let it be soon that we may assume their roles of leadership among the people”.

These foolish thoughts emanated from wise rabbis but there is no written indication in the Torah to support their commentaries.

Two young men who loved God and who wanted sincerely to honor Him committed a well-intended act which cost them their lives.

Should we be punished for serving God in our own personal manner albeit not demanded of us? Is there no room for individual service though not commanded nor demanded? Are we not able to love and serve God according to our own hearts or must we conform to the teachings of ancient rabbis who interpret the law in accordance with their own personal convictions?

While the Torah portion of Shemini is painful because men are killed out of love for God, the haftorah which follows the Torah reading is even more painful and impossible to understand.

Samuel II, chapter 6, recounts an incident in which the Holy Ark is being transferred from the home of Abinadab in Gibeah to King David’s city of Jerusalem. The Ark was carefully placed in a new wagon drawn by oxen and guided by Abinadab’s two sons, Uzzah and Achio.

En route, the oxen stumbled and the Holy Ark was shifted and in danger of falling off the wagon. But Uzzah reached out to the Ark and grasped it to prevent it from falling.

“The anger of God flared up against Uzzah and God struck him there for the error; Uzzah died there by the Ark of God”.

Why? A simple man sees a Holy Ark about to fall to the ground from a slipping wagon and rushes to grasp it to prevent it from falling. And for this well-intentioned act God strikes him dead.

Where is the justice in these two incidents? Where is God’s mercy for those who love Him and want to serve Him, although He has not asked it of them? Where is the sense of it, the reasoning?

Shameful SHEMINI leaves me cold, angry and resentful. It causes conflict and turmoil within me for the God whom I love with all my heart, with all my soul and with all my might.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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