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It is a poignant and tragic tale, partly due to its brevity, partly due to its strangeness. It leaves us with an overarching sense of injustice, and we are left with many questions but few answers. Why exactly did these men die? What does “alien fire” mean? Why would God want to kill young priests offering sacrificial incense?
You might imagine that these questions provide fertile ground for rabbinic inquiry, and you would be right. A number of midrashim (stories that come to fill in the blanks) were suggested by the rabbis of the Talmud about the deaths of Aaron’s sons. In chapter 9 of his book Reading The Book: Making The Bible A Timeless Text, Rabbi Burt Visotsky, a professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary, writes about sibling rivalry in the Bible. He explores the rivalry between Aaron and his more famous brother, Moses, and their sister, Miriam.
Professor Visotsky and his colleague, Dr. Avigdor Shinan of the Hebrew University, have laid out 12 separate reasons the traditional commentators gave for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. Visotsky compares this gamut of explanations to the various points of view in the Japanese film Rashomon, in which the filmmaker, Kurosawa, wants the viewer to understand that a story has no objective truth and that it changes depending on who is telling the story. The same events can be interpreted in vastly different ways. What happened to Aaron’s sons is beyond comprehension — hence the 12 very different reasons from the rabbis who tried to make sense of a tragic and ultimately perplexing loss.
And what do we know of Aaron’s reaction? “And Aaron was silent.” This loss of two sons was beyond words — Aaron was speechless. The brother who was the mouthpiece, the one who was to speak to the Pharaoh for Moses, is left without words in the face of his heartbreaking loss. Sometimes in the face of overwhelming tragedy, the best behavior is silence.
Then, on a completely different wave length, (or as our G-dcast storyteller says, “now that this unpleasantness is behind us”) the parasha also lays out some of the rules of kashrut, enumerating explicitly which animals Jews are allowed to eat and which are forbidden. The storyteller presents this information from chapter 11 of Leviticus in a catchy song:
Eating is one of the most basic functions of a living, breathing creature, humans included. If we are lucky, we eat 3 meals a day, both to sustain us and to give us pleasure. The Torah is concerned with what we consume as food/fuel. In parashat Sh’mini, this weeks portion, we get the full rule book on what is in the YES column and what is in the NO column.
Notice that no explicit reason is given in the Torah for why some of these animals, birds, and fish are forbidden for Jews to eat. Kind of like the idea that there is no explicit reason that two of Aaron’s sons are consumed by the fire of the sacrificial alter, even though the G-dcast storyteller suggests a few, like one of the better known rabbinic “reasons” — that Nadav and Avihu were drunk, and therefore in no state to perform the holy acts of offering up the incense.
It occurs to me that we are only several days past the last crumbs of matzah from 8 days of Passover, when there were many restrictions on what kinds of food Jews were allowed to consume and what was forbidden — anything made from the five grains that could become hametz (leavened). On an outing to the local grocery store’s kosher section, you could see food products, many produced in Israel, that bore the label, “kosher for Passover;” these are foods that come out only at this time of year.
It’s worth a few moments of contemplation on what all of these restrictions mean to people observing the kashrut laws, both those derived from this week’s parasha and those that apply to the 8 days of Passover. Also worth noting are all of the various kinds of restrictions people freely adopt concerning the kind of food they will eat and what they deem forbidden for either health or environmental reasons… from veganism to abstaining from gluten or sugar, from raw foodists to those who will not eat any foods that have been processed commercially. Once you start thinking about the various categories of food that people will or will not eat, the laws of kashrut in chapter 11 are no longer so strange!
Our G-dcast storyteller this week correctly informs us that Parashat Terumah is all about the Israelites’ newest project: building a portable sanctuary (mishkan) for worshipping God, right there in the middle of the desert. God gives the instructions to Moshe/Moses, and then we, as readers, get the dozens of details as a kind of blueprint in what might be considered numbingly boring minutiae.
But we need to ask ourselves: what is the point of laying it all out so exactingly? And does God really care about gold, silver, lapis lazuli and dolphin cloth??? And if not, why would these specifications be made?
Our storyteller suggests that we need to zoom in and zoom out of these particulars in order to see the bigger picture.
There are a few verses that really call out to me in this parasha, starting with Exodus chapter 25 verse 2:
What an incredible thing to find here in the Torah, a book full of commandments for so many things. Here, we are told that gifts are only to be brought if one WANTS to participate, if one’s heart is so moved… Only then, should he or she bring a gift to help build the sanctuary. This is the first startling thing in this huge, complicated new construction project the former slaves are undertaking.
The second verse that is at the heart of Parashat Terumah is also from chapter 25, a few verses later in verse 8:
God is actually telling Moshe that God wants to be “among” the people (b’tocham — in their midst). Not above them, not in a special place rooted in a specific locality, but AMONG them, in this portable tent-like santuary that moves with the people as they wander in the desert. What kind of God wants to be AMONG the people? What is God’s need, if we could be so bold in asking?
The storyteller also uses several words for this building, this “sanctuary.” First we get the Hebrew name, Mishkan, which has the same root as shakhen/neighbor and shekhinah/feminine presence of the Divine. The portable building is also referred to as a tabernacle (which always makes me think of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir). Finally, it’s also called the Divine Dwelling Place.
Sanctuary implies a holy place, a sanctum, a place with sacred dimensions (mikdash/holy place). There is also the name Ohel Mo’ed /Tent of Meeting, referring to the function this place provides — it’s where Moshe encounters the Divine and receives instruction. These names seem like they might be interchangeable, but as we proceed through the book of Exodus and Leviticus and get more information on the Mishkan, we will see that each name implies a different function and/or is describing another part of the whole compound.
Still, think about what it could mean to have the Almighty say that S/He wants to “dwell among the Israelite nation.” Not only is this a profound gloss on the relationship between God and the people, it also suggests possibilities in the way we build our contemporary synagogues and places of worship right now, in the 21st century. Chancellor Arnold Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America writes about this in his column on Parashat Terumah.
To consider as you continue reading: