Shemini: Rabbi Abraham


By Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum

The “eighth day” with which our parshah of SHEMINI opens was the first day of the month of Nissan, one year since the Exodus from Egypt. This was the day marked out for the final inauguration of the Sanctuary following seven days of consecration of Aaron and his sons for service as priests. Those seven days had started on the 23rd of the preceding month of Adar. On each of those seven days, Moses had erected the Sanctuary in order to conduct the priestly consecration rituals, in which he himself served as the “high priest”, only to dismantle the Sanctuary afterwards. However, on the Eighth Day — the first of Nissan and first day of the New Year — the Sanctuary was left standing, so to remain for as long as the Israelites stayed in the same desert encampment. On that day Aaron and his sons fully assumed the role of priests forever after.

The rabbis stated that the first day of Nissan “took ten crowns”: It was (1) the first day of creation; (2) first day of the first of the months of the year; (3) the first day of the priesthood; (4) the first day of the Sanctuary service; (5) first day of the inauguration sacrifices of the princes of the twelve tribes; (6) first day for the descent of fire from heaven on the altar; (7) the first day that sacrifices were eaten; (8) the first day that all other altars (such as private altars) other than the Sanctuary altar became forbidden; (9) the first day that the Divine Presence dwelled in Israel; (10) the first day on which the priests blessed the people (Mechilta, Shemini 1).

In calling this the “eighth” day, the Torah alludes to the fact that, with the inauguration of the Sanctuary, it was the day on which the Israelites completely transcended the natural order, which was brought into being through the “seven days of creation”. The latter correspond to the lower seven of the ten sefirot of which the Kabbalah speaks, corresponding to the “body” (as opposed to top three, which are the “head”).

As long as man does not recognize his true mission in this world and spends his life trying to satisfy only his bodily needs and desires, he is locked within nature, like an animal. However, when he embraces his destiny, willfully configuring and using the material world as a means of drawing closer to G-d, building a Sanctuary and bringing the natural, the animal, as a KORBAN, a “sacrifice” (lit. “a drawing close”), man attains a level that transcends nature. This is the eighth level, that of BINAH (the eighth Sefirah counting up from Malchut, which is the bottom Sefirah). BINAH is the “gateway” to the “head”, the brain and the soul (consisting of the top three Sefirot).

When we use our soul-powers — our willpower, wisdom and understanding, to assert our control over the material and the animal, we can “pass through the gate” into the world of the spirit. This is governed by a law different from that which governs the natural order. The world of the spirit is governed by Torah law. When we pass through the gate, we can know and understand (with BINAH) that the natural order is nothing but an arena of challenge created by G-d in order for us to use it to connect back to the Source. As long as we are under the power of nature, this world stands as a barrier holding us back from G-d. But when we assert our spiritual power, this world turns into a gateway through which we can draw closer to Him.

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So great is the significance of the day of the inauguration of the Sanctuary, the day of man’s birth as a spiritual being, that the Torah returns to it in several portions in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. (“There is no ‘before’ and ‘after’ in the Torah”). In PEKUDEY at the end of Exodus, we had the account of how Moses erected the Sanctuary on 1st Nissan, drawing G-d’s “cloud” to descend so that “His glory filled the Sanctuary”. Our present parshah, SHEMINI, narrates how Aaron and his four sons inaugurated the Sanctuary with special sacrifices, and how G-d’s fire descended onto the altar. SHEMINI continues with the dramatic story of the offering of “strange fire” in the Sanctuary by Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s first and second sons, leading to their death by fire from heaven. Finally, in NASO, second parshah of the book of Numbers, the Torah tells of the special offering of Nachshon, Prince of the tribe of Judah, on the first of Nissan, initiating the offerings of the princes of the twelve tribes, one by one on twelve consecutive days.

It is one of the profound paradoxes of the Torah that this auspicious day should have been so horribly marred by the death of the two older sons of the leading protagonist in the Sanctuary, Aaron. In the world in which we live, the world of nature and separation, there is no explanation of such a tragedy. As far as this world is concerned, death is the end: how can it be good? If any meaning is to be found in such an occurrence, it can only be through “the eighth day”, the level of BINAH, understanding, which is the gateway to the transcendent realm of unity, where there is no separation and no death.

If closeness to G-d and entry into the realm of unity came cheap, we would not value them. They come at a price. In what currency can we pay G-d? He does not need our money, our oxen, sheep and other “sacrifices”. The price is often paid in pain (LO ALENU — not on us!!!). Pain robs man of his ability to feel comfortable in this world of separation to which he becomes so attached. Pain drives him to seek relief by trying to transcend the world. Pain is a teacher, a very harsh one.

An event as great as the erection of the Sanctuary and the drawing of G-d’s presence into the world could not but come at a great price. The Sanctuary “will be sanctified by My glory” (Ex. 29:3) — “by those who are my glorified ones” (Rabbinic drush, see Rashi on Lev. 10:3, “I will be sanctified by those who are close to Me”). The price was paid by Aaron precisely because his was the pivotal role in the Sanctuary project, which is to configure this refractory material world in such a way that it becomes a vessel holding and revealing G-dliness. Aaron had all the glory and splendor of this world (HOD), as represented in his gorgeous garments. He received the choicest share of the priestly gifts and portions. All this glory had to be elevated to G-d, it could not be allowed to stay in this world and turn into self-glorification.

When we use the wealth of this world for self-glorification, it turns into a golden calf. Aaron is on the very edge. He has all the glory, he wears the wealth of the world on his very person. In order to keep him from going out of his mind with pride, he is struck with a terrible blow, the loss of the flower of his children (their loss in this world, though not in the world of unity). The pain forces him to transcend the world of separation, the material world. Aaron must remain in the world of unity: he must not show mourning or rend his garments. He must stay in the Sanctuary, the Sanctuary of the soul, the world of unity: Keter-Chochmah-Binah. There, the language of our world, the world of separation and pain, does not apply. We can enter that exalted realm only through silent acceptance of G-d’s decree. “And Aaron remained silent.”

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Aaron and his surviving sons could not show mourning, because their role was to remain in the world of unity in order to connect others to it. But the Children of Israel had to mourn, because they are the ones who live in the world of separation from which Nadav and Avihu had been torn. It is said that the sin of Nadav and Avihu is that they wanted to dissolve the separation completely and bring the entire world back into immediate unity with G-d. They wanted to redeem evil. They wanted to break through all the barriers. They were drunk with the unity of G-d — and they went beyond bounds until they were totally burned up inside with G-d’s fire.

But G-d does not want us to go altogether beyond the bounds. We may not embrace evil, for G-d created it precisely so that we should reject it despite the temptations. G-d established the world of separation and evil as an arena of challenge for man, in which he must steadily refine and elevate his earthly materialism until he turns himself into a vessel fit to receive G-d’s unity. This cannot be done all at once: it must be done step by step, stage by stage.

As an arena of challenge to man, the world consists of good and evil, pure and impure, holy and unholy. Man’s task is to use his powers of mind and soul to discriminate between them, to embrace the good and holy while rejecting the impure and unholy. The world is a very deceptive place. The pig displays its cloven hoof as if to say, “I am pure”. But the truth is that it is impure, for it does not chew its food over. It does not want to confront its food again, since it always has its nose in the filth.

We cannot allow ourselves to go by appearances in this world: we have to penetrate beneath the surface. The only means we have of doing so is with G-d’s Torah, the Tree of Life, which teaches the truth about good and evil in every area of life — be it what we eat, how we do business, whom we marry and all other areas. Only with objective, outside guidance can we sort out the confusion that came from Adam’s eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. When man in his arrogance thinks that he knows — when he relies on his personal judgments about what is good and bad — he can go terribly wrong, because there is a serpent within him, the YETZER RA, that is liable to deceive him. Making the correct distinctions in this world is at the very center of what we must accomplish here.

Thus the middle letter of the entire Torah, which is in our parshah (the letter VAV — signifying “connection” — in the word “belly” Lev. 11:42), is in a word that alludes to the humiliation of the serpent, who was cut down to size and made to go on his belly (Gen. 3:14). Only by humiliating the serpent and rejecting evil is it possible to connect with G-d. There is no middle word in the Torah, since the total number of words in the Torah is even. The center of the Torah in terms of words comes between the words DAROSH DARASH (Lev. 10:16): “and Moses SEARCHINGLY SEARCHED”. Only by searching very hard can we penetrate to the real truth!

The priest is not allowed to drink when he serves in the Sanctuary. Intoxicants and instant religiosity do not bring genuine connection with G-d. Similarly, the rabbi may not drink before giving an halachic ruling. It takes sobriety to distinguish between truth and illusion.

The latter half of our parshah teaches us to discriminate between pure and impure foods, while most of the remainder of the book of Leviticus is taken up with the detailed Torah code through which we separate and distinguish between good and evil in all other areas of life.

Through our assiduous study of the Torah and its teachings, may we find the spiritual strength to take our destiny in our hands and rise to our true mission: “And you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy…” (Lev. 11:44).

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