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Shemini 5783

April 9, 2023

Rabbi Geier


BS"D || Rabbi Geier

Shemini 5783

Fire is one of the creations of the Kadosh Baruch Hu that was given to us and resulted in one of the great differentiations from the rest of living beings. By using fire, we have managed to stay alive and improve our quality of life. We bake our bread, cook our food and heat heat our homes using fire. Its heat provides us with comfort and when used carefully, it lights up our lives in the midst of darkness. However, when we don't control it or become enthralled with it and fuel it excessively, it can wreak enormous havoc.

If fire controls us instead of us controlling it, it will spill out of the oven's confines, our bread will burn, our food will be ruined, houses will burn on top of their occupants, and our and cities will go up in flames.

In this week's parashah, fire takes on a unique role.

The construction of the Sanctuary is completed, and the seven days of consecration of Aaron and his four sons as priests are finished. The ritual protocol is established, and the Kohanim can now officiate and serve the people in their sacrificial task. It is the eighth day, coincidentally the day the fire was given to Adam, at the end of Shabbat, at the beginning of the eighth day. And this is the beginning of our story. “Shemini,” the name of the parashah, means “eighth.”

The purpose of the ceremony described in Parshat Shemini is to differentiate between the holy and the profane, between man and God, and to allow all parties involved in the ceremony to understand their place in the social structure of the fledgling Nation.

Clearly, the intention is to convey that we have the ability to differentiate and classify the profane from the sacred. And despite having "stained" ourselves with some bad behavior, some bad choices, or choosing the wrong path, there is repentance and a way back to the right path. Let us not forget that Aaron himself, the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, was the one who led, albeit in a tenuous way, the construction of the Golden Calf.

The objective of this ritual that Shemini describes to us seems to be to institutionalize content and values, to create a framework for a moment, a place, and those who participate in it. Thus promoting a differentiation between the ordinary and the special, between the moment that preceded it and the one that comes after it, between the place and its occupants. It is the learning of learning to consecrate by choosing something or a moment to make it special with respect to the rest.

Shortly after, two of Aaron's four sons, Nadav and Avihu, intervene and offer another fire on the altar, a "strange fire," not prescribed by the ritual that was indicated to them. They are immediately struck down by lightning from the heavens.

Why did they act like this? Was it a spontaneous act of beginning trainees? Did they want to do more than they should to glorify themselves, to put themselves in the foreground, to claim privileges? Why did they bring false sacredness to the altar instead of holy fire?

Not comfortable with the fact that the reasons for the death of Aaron's sons were not specified in the Torah, the midrash explains the reasons by stating four things:

  • Both approached the altar, the Holy of Holies, without permission.

  • They offered a sacrifice that they were not asked to offer.

  • They took the fire from another place, someone else's fire, and not fire from the altar.

  • It was an unconsulted act; they acted impulsively and without measuring the consequences that could come from their actions

Such a surprising and violent episode, to which Aaron only manages to react by remaining silent, as the story tells us, refers us to other areas of our global society.

I am referring to those who make use of the sacred to achieve a social or political goal that has nothing to do with the purity of what is supposed to be achieved. The repeated mixture of power and sacredness to justify and even convince people of personal political objectives is well-known. This event then leads us to question the meaning of the sacred, what is authentically sacred, and the object of the appropriation of the sacred.

Fundamentalism that appropriates the sacred is dangerous in itself. It is a way of mistreating people. It constitutes an illegitimate weapon of empowerment.

The sacred and the profane, which are the axis of the Parasha, invite us to think carefully about the type of responsibility that is required of public servants and leaders, and to ask ourselves if an intransigent attitude and little empathy with a large part of society will allow us to continue developing a truly democratic life.

Those who claim special rights and privileges and those who misuse "the religious" represent "the strange fire", the one we must beware of because it will ultimately harm us all.

May the days between this Shabbat and the celebration of the 75th Anniversary of the Independence of Medinat Israel be propitious for reflecting on the consequences of desiring disproportionate power and leadership, and recognizing that the end never justifies the means.

May we continue to learn about the constant and necessary repentance and review of our actions that lead us to correct paths and attitudes to achieve better coexistence and improve the world in the kingdom of the Lord, Tikun Olam be Malchut Shadai.

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