Pesach: The Eighth Day

Joyfully shall you draw water from the wellsprings of redemption…((Isaiah 12:3) from the Haftarah of the eighth day of Pesach, and in Israel of Yom Ha’Atzmaut).

Each year we tell the dismal tale of bondage:
the exit from the confines of the straits
on a journey that traverses arid sands.

We eat the greens, awash in brine;
unleavened bread that dries the tongue.
We swallow down the bitter herbs

then forge ahead, foreseeing freedom,
celebrating with four cups of heady wine, yet
redemption is suspended beyond reach.

We have not found the wisdom and the valor
to wipe out wanton misery and vice;
nor yet can trust the feral with the helpless –

we have not yet drawn water from the wells.


In a commentary about the last day of Pesach, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/pesah/5772/last-day-passover, Dr Alan Cooper discusses the eighth day of Pesach, (which in Israel is already no longer Pesach). He notes “…many Hasidim relax some of the dietary restrictions of the first seven days, and they also gather for a special meal called a se’udat mashiach (messianic feast), reminiscent of the seder in its inclusion of matzah and four cups of wine. This meal, allegedly instituted by the Baal Shem Tov himself, is a lovely complement to the haftarah that we recite on the eighth day (Isa. 10:32–12:6), which looks forward to the messianic era as a time of universal peace.”
He says while the first seven days of Pesach relate the historical events from the hasty exodus from Egypt on the first day, until the crossing of the Red Sea on the seventh, the eighth day “brings us back to the present and reorients us towards the future.” He cites Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet who says, “Just as the first day celebrates the redemption from the first exile, the last day celebrates the future redemption from our final state of exile. The two are intimately connected, the beginning and end of one process, with God in the future redemption showing wonders ‘as in the days of your exodus from Egypt’ (Micah 7:15).”
The haftarah recited on this day*, (and by many in Israel on Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) which is celebrated shortly after Pesach) contains a series of prophesies spoken by Isaiah, anticipating a great redemption to come. As the Etz Hayim (Commentary of the JPS) notes, “It moves from foretelling an end to foreign oppression to utopian visions of national justice and ingathering….A vision of social and natural transformation lies at the center of this haftarah…” It envisions leadership through “wisdom and insight…counsel and valor…devotion and reverence for God.” Aside from the prophesy of justice and equity towards the downtrodden, Isaiah foresees radical changes in the natural world in which predators and prey will live peacefully together.
The haftarah contains some of the verses recited at the conclusion of Shabbat, in the Havdalah service, including “Joyfully shall you draw water from the fountain springs of salvation.”(Isaiah 12:3)
Dr Cooper suggests that this is the day “to redirect our gaze from the past to the future, and the haftarah… encourages us to envision and yearn for a better, safer, and healthier world. ” However, he concludes that we have to take an active part in striving for the fulfilment of these prophesies of peace and justice.

*Translation from the JPS Tanakh can be found at this link:

http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/translations/pesah/haftarah-portion/pesah-day-8

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Pesach: Sitting at God’s Table

The mid-month moon glows lambent
against the star-strewn sky
as, hungry and impoverished,
we gather to partake.

Wondering and wordless
we filter through the door.
Each soul is undiminished:
the sum of all its parts.

The pristine table, candle-lit,
extends along the room.
Sitting down as strangers,
by night’s end we are kin.

We fill each other’s goblets;
in their patina we see
each image, undistorted, and
each bears the stamp of God.

Relinquishing all judgment:
none wicked nor more wise; at
the table of the peerless Host
His children reunite.


In a commentary about Seder night, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=8259, Reb Mimi Feigelson asks this question, “What would you do, how would you prepare, what would you need to know if I told you that this year (and every year to come) you would be sitting at God’s table???”
Reb Mimi brings a teaching by the Tosafot* in which we learn that we are all sitting at God’s table – the Aramaic expression of which is “A’tacha d’Rachamana Samchinan.”
She says, “It is here that we are taught that even though it may appear that we are the ones that engage in all the work and toil required for seder night, it is at the moment that we sit down that we are asked to surrender ownership of all that is in front of us and recognize that we are all the children of our Creator, and we are sitting together, regardless of where we may be geographically, at God’s table.”
In the last two Parashot that we read in the yearly cycle, Tazria and Metsora, and which always fall near Pesach, we read of the treatment of the leper, “the other”, and the ultimate aspiration that he or she will belong in society and not be exiled “outside the camp.”
Modern society is fractured into groups excluding “others” on grounds of ethnic origin, religious differences, political affiliations and sexual orientation to mention only a few.*
Reb Mimi wonders, “What would it mean to be set free of the enslavement of our self-definitions and acquisitions/possessions? How can we open our heart and soul to be in life and belong to God in a way that we’ve never experienced before? What does it mean that our hands are no longer holding on to emotional, psychological and even spiritual territories that we have declared in the past as ‘mine’, allowing us to receive divine abundance like never before?”
She concludes, “For Rabban Gamliel, as we will read in the haggadah, seder night is defined by the three words “Pessach“, “Matzah” and “Maror“. For me, the prerequisite for this are the three Aramaic words “A’tacha d’Rachamana Samchinan“!
“I pray that this seder night we will be blessed with the freedom and courage to sit together at God’s table! I pray that we will be able to greet each other with “shabbat shalom” and “chag sameach” as we sit down together; knowing, trusting and believing that indeed, A’tacha d’Rachamana Samchinan!”

*The Tosafot are medieval commentaries on the Talmud. They take the form of critical and explanatory glosses, printed, in almost all Talmud editions, on the outer margin and opposite Rashi’s notes.

**Numerous organizations and initiatives are designed to counter these divisive societal tendencies, some of which are, sadly, endorsed by religious authorities. (I mentioned the attempt to exclude a child with Down’s syndrome from a Talmud Torah in this post from last year on Parashat Metsora https://parashapoems.wordpress.com/2015/04/16/metsora-outcast/). ‎

It is notable that earlier this month, dozens of Israeli Orthodox rabbis signed a religious edict urging religious communities to accept gay members without prejudice. The Beit Hillel organization, a Modern Orthodox rabbinic group comprising 200 men and women that promotes inclusiveness in Orthodox Judaism, published a document the aim of which is to encourage “an integrated path between religious law and loving-kindness and peace.”

Metsora: Seeing, not knowing

The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess, the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, “Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.” (Vayikra 14:33-35)

He visits the priest:
he, the owner of the house,
learned, dignified,
imposing

yet he speaks uncertainly
that maybe something
like a plague
has spread throughout his house.

He may think
there is no doubt
but eyes perceive the surface only
and from beneath the shadowed lesions
sparks of light may yet emerge.


This week’s parasha, Metsora, continues with a description of the purification of the leper, the diagnosis of whose lesions were the subject of last week’s parasha, Tazria. And then the Torah moves on with a curious instruction by God that when the people will enter the land, and He will inflict an “eruptive plague” upon someone’s house, the owner must come with a somewhat hesitant declaration to the priest.
In the Talmud, in Sanhedrin 71a, we read, “There never was a leprous house [to need destruction], and never will be. Then why was its law written? — That you may study it and receive reward.” So the Talmud seems to be telling us that what is important here is not the nature of the plague itself, rather what can be learned from examining it.
In a commentary on parashat Metsora, Rabbi Aryeh Cohen suggests that the parasha is teaching us a lesson about seeing. He says, “The early impressionists recognized that we don’t see details – we make them up to fill in the broad stroke pictures we grasp as we hurry by. We make up the rest according to what we want to see. Malcom Gladwell came to the same conclusion in his book “Blink.” Within two seconds of meeting someone or seeing a house, we jump to a series of conclusions about whether or not we will like that person or want to buy the house.
“Our imaginative faculty is a powerful tool. One can look at the lines and curves of one of Picasso’s or Braque’s cubist paintings and discern a figure. Our imagination can also create a picture of the person who is standing in front of us which is nothing like her.”
So Rabbi Cohen says “This week’s Torah portion is all about seeing. Not seeing only what you want to see but really seeing what is there.”
In these last two parashot, we read about the intricacies of this mysterious affliction that affects people, fabrics and buildings. He wonders what are we to infer from these texts. He mentions that one interpretive key to the Torah and a favored method of the Chasidic movement in the eighteenth century, is to ask how this is relevant in every place and every time. We no longer have a way to purify ourselves, nor priests to perform these rites, so how can this be applied today?
Rabbi Cohen brings one such answer from the work of Rabbi Mordecai Yosef Lainer* of Izhbitze, known as the Mei HaShiloach. The Izhbitzer says that the Kohen – the priest – represents the discernment that each of us potentially has. Rabbi Cohen says, “It is through service and devotion that we can actualize this potent ability of discernment which is called the Kohen. The Torah is teaching us then about discernment – about the ability to tell the difference between a physical and a spiritual ailment, about the importance of paying enough attention to be able to actually see what we are seeing.
“In light of this insight we can also understand the Talmud’s remark that this skin ailment is brought about as a result of slandering or speaking ill of another person. This is a second level of discernment. First we must attend to that which is in front of us and really understand the images that we process. Then we must filter the knowledge that we have accumulated and not repeat them verbatim merely for the sake of gossip.
“Finally, this spiritual practice of actualizing the Kohen function in ourselves can lead to radically transform the way that we live in the world.” Rabbi Cohen mentions the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) who suggests that most people progress through life only half awake, without assessing the possible consequences of their actions. “In order to be fully awake I must attempt to be conscious of the fact that my actions – what I buy, how I drive, how I vote – affect others (whom I do not know) in profound ways.” He concludes that an enhanced awareness of the impact of our deeds is the first step in repairing the world.

In his book The Language of Truth** Rabbi Arthur Green brings the commentary of the Sefat Emet on this verse. The Sefat Emet, too, labels this a strange announcement to be made by the house owner and he cites Rashi, who explains that the Canaanites had hidden gold treasures inside the walls of their houses, and thus when the plague appeared and the Israelites were forced to destroy their houses, they would find the treasure! The Sefat Emet questions why the Creator would need to design such a convoluted mechanism in order to let the Israelites access the treasure. So he teaches that the real “hidden treasures” are the hidden sparks of holiness in the most material of things. Rabbi Green explains further, “The only “hidden treasures” we need seek out are those hidden by God Himself, and these are hidden throughout reality. The only houses we need to destroy in order to find them are those we ourselves construct, the blinders we keep setting up to keep us from seeing the light within. We are our own Canaanites; we are our only Israel.”

In another commentary on Tazria-Metsora from 2012, Dr Rachel Anisfeld too addresses this theme of looking beneath the surface. She says that we tend to see things superficially, and it was the priest’s job to look deeper. She cites Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Warsaw ghetto rebbe, who, before the war, authored a book called B’nei Machshavah Tovah (which has been translated as “Conscious Community”) in which he details a strategy for training one’s mind to perceive God in the universe. “What you see with your plain eyes, he says, is merely the outer form; one can learn to perceive the inner being of things, to feel God’s constant presence in the world.”

In his book A Partner in Holiness*** (Vol II), Rabbi Jonathan Slater brings the teachings of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev. On this parasha, the Berdichever also cites Rashi, and he too, indicates that the hidden treasures denote sparks of holiness that are raised up in the service of the Creator. “When we raise up a spark, we raise up its innerness, leaving aside its externality. The outside that we throw away is the source of the eruptive plagues in the house: it is the leftover husk disconnected from the spark that rots.”
Rabbi Slater notes that when Rabbi Levi Yitzchak transfers the emphasis from treasures of gold to holy sparks, he is teaching us that our truest joy is not to be found in material things, however valuable. “We will be happy only when we seek God, seeing the possibility of connecting to the Divine in everything.” He adds another teaching of the Berdichever, “…we make a mistake when we turn up our noses at what “stinks.” That is, the eruption in the houses seems to be a negative event. The Midrash surely tries to make this something positive. Levi Yitzchak goes a step further. Everything is made up of a mixture of good and bad, of internal and external, of spiritual and material. The two interact and are interdependent. Without the spark (spiritual), the physical dies, becomes waste and rots. But without the form (physical), the spark cannot be present in the world, filling it with divine presence. When we divide the world up into what we like (what is pleasant) and what we do not like (what is unpleasant, rotten and stinky), we might miss out on seeing God’s presence in all things. We might be tempted to think that there is nothing spiritual in houses and the like. We will be even more tempted to think so when there erupts some sort of rot or plague. We would be wrong. Indeed the eruption itself is the sign that there is a spark present that needs to be redeemed. It is in reconnecting with the rot, opening it up to reveal the spark, that we can encounter true joy.”
Rabbi Slater adds that the episode of the Israelites sandwiched between the Egyptian chariots and the sea [topical for the upcoming festival of Pesach] epitomises the sort of seeing that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak is exhorting us to employ. Moses tells the people, who are ready to flee back to Egypt:”Have no fear! Stand still and witness the deliverance that God will work for you today; for the Egyptians you will see today, you will never see again; God will battle for you; so be silent!”
The Berdichever, he says, is telling us “To be saved in our lives, to truly see God’s salvation, we have to pay attention even in the moments of our greatest fear, even in the face of the most horrifying occurrence. Our capacity to maintain contact with the terrifying and horrific allows us to know what is true and [bear] witness to it. When we do not turn away, we are able to testify that “this, too” is part of God’s world.” Rabbi Slater notes that the berachot of sight and awareness do not shy away from blessing the “bad” as well as the “good” – there is a blessing on bad news, on thunder, on seeing unusual-looking people. “Nothing” he concludes “is beneath God’s notice, and nothing should be beyond our attention.

And finally, in a further commentary on Metsora, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5445, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson addresses the unusually tentative terms in which a supposedly self-assured house owner is to couch his announcement to the priest about the lesions that have afflicted his house: “Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.”
Rabbi Shavit Artson notes “Modern men and women like to pretend that we have a direct pipeline into reality that we know, in an absolute and ultimate way, about ourselves, about the world around us, about true wisdom. Forgetting that previous generations were equally sure about the truths they “knew”, that the earth was flat, that the universe was a few thousand years old, that women were inferior to men, and that we now view their certainties with scorn, we presume that our most cherished verities will last forever. We confuse our grasp of reality with reality itself, our understandings of humanity with humanity, our arrogant self-confidence with truth.”
He says that this confusion is not new or unique to modernity, and he believes that it is this
“superficial smugness” that the parasha comes to challenge. The ancient rabbis were quick to notice this unusual hesitancy in a culture in which epidemics were considered serious and far-reaching events.
And the Torah tells him what to say, regardless of his own knowledge. The Torah mandates this line, regardless of the knowledge of the afflicted homeowner. As the Mishnah in Nega’im 12:5 notes, “Even if he is a Torah scholar and knows for certainty that it is a plague-spot, he shall not declare outright, “It is a plague-spot,” but “Something like a plague-spot.”
The Torah is normally very clear in its dualities: kasher/treif; permitted/forbidden; clean/unclean. So it seems there is something underlying this mandatory expression of hesitation.
Rabbi Shavit Artson suggests, “I think that the Torah is teaching a kind of religious/intellectual humility to its followers. We are not God, and we are far from perfect. The way we acquire knowledge and wisdom is limited by our own five senses, our own life experiences, and our own subjective intuition. We do not observe from some neutral or privileged place. Instead, each one of us can only see what our eyes will see, can only understand by building upon the analogies of what we already know. Human wisdom and judgment is, of necessity, limited, imperfect, and provisional.
As we continue in life, we learn new facts, new ways of thinking, new experiences, all of which allow us to revisit our own convictions and beliefs, to challenge our own insights and dogmas. While we continue to assert our own understandings, the Torah is suggesting that we do so with the humility borne of knowing that we might be wrong, that our most passionate conviction may be erroneous, or based on something we will come to reject later on. This religious humility, and the consequent courage to fashion a life of meaning based on a provisional fix on timeless truth, is the highest form of saintliness—blending as it does the courage of one’s convictions with the recognition that good people may not share those convictions and they may not be wrong. In fact, because of our limited vision, we may all have only a partial truth, so that different and conflicting perceptions may each be partially true and partially distorted by our finitude.”
He concludes, “As the ancient midrash, Otiot de-Rebbi Akiva notes, “truth has legs.” Scurrying as it does, truth eludes final capture or complete possession. We are all seekers along the way, all wandering in the wilderness, never quite making it into the Promised Land, but struggling to come closer to our sacred home.”

 

*Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner (1801-1854) was a Chasidic thinker and founder of the Izhbitzer-Radzhyn dynasty of Chasidic Judaism.

**The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger [1847 – 1905] translated and interpreted by Rabbi Arthur Green.

***A Partner in Holiness Vol II Deepening Mindfulness, Practicing Compassion and Enriching our Lives through the Wisdom of R. Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev’s Kedushat Levi by Rabbi Jonathan P Slater.
[R. Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev 1740 – 1810].

Tazria: The Patient’s Examination

The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests. The priest shall examine the affection on the skin of his body…(Vayikra 13:1-3)

Who will disregard his lofty status
to roll up pristine sleeves
and look the patient fully in the eye?

Who will meet the anxious gaze
and smile a friendly smile
that owes nothing to pretension

but bridges the divide
between the dauntless healer
and the would-be healed?

Who will lay his hands on blemished skin,
will gently touch the oozing sores
and probe the scaly scourge

and not recoil from fearsome wounds
reflected in the desperation etched
upon a stricken face?

Who will yield professional aloofness
for some kindly human comfort
and tend the desolation of disease?

Who will air the painful unasked questions
and pay attention to the softly voiced response
and listen to the feelings left unspoken

and know that both are wounded, bound together
and balanced at the edge of the ravine?


The two parashot Tazria and Metsora, focus intensely on the intricacies of the diagnosis and treatment of the disease “tsara’at – leprosy” (but not Hansen’s disease as we know it today). The Rabbis detected a similarity between the word metsora meaning leper, and the expression motsi shem ra meaning slanderer, and thus derived that leprosy was the punishment for slander. They liken gossip to leprosy as both are highly contagious. The Etz Hayim commentary on this issue notes, “Today we recognize that it is medically inaccurate and psychologically cruel to tell someone that he or she has been afflicted with illness as a punishment for behavior not organically related to the illness, or that failure to heal is to be blamed on a lack of will. It should be noted that the Torah itself presents tsara’at as an affliction to be cured, not as a punishment to be explained. We might ask: What actions or conditions cause an individual to be isolated from the community today? And what can religious institutions do to restore that person to the community?”

We find in this parasha, in Chapter 13 alone, mention of the priest examining the sufferer no less than twenty times, and part of the priest’s mandate was to tell what he’d found (mentioned nineteen times), and ideally to re-integrate the afflicted person back into the community.

In the Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah 15:8, we read an interesting story: Rabbi Levi said in the name of Rabbi Chama ben Rabbi Chanina: “Moses was extremely pained by this matter, saying, ‘Is this the honor of Aaron, my brother, that he should be the one who has to see the lesions [of the sick]?'” Moses, the most humble of men, seems distressed that his older brother, who is the spiritual leader – the first High Priest – is expected to soil his hands and besmirch his sacred status by palpating the sores of lepers!
It seems though, that in this exclamation, the spiritual connection between the healer and sufferer eluded Moses. However, in ancient times, the role of the spiritual leader – the priest – was also that of the healer. Before healing became transformed into the scientific discipline of medicine, the priest, shaman or witch-doctor represented the address for all ills.
In the last century, the practice of medicine has been totally transfigured by new drugs and new procedures. Life expectancy has climbed steadily from under fifty in 1900, more than sixty by the 1930s, and has reached over 80 (in 2013) in quite a number of developed countries. However, with this incredible transformation, aided by undreamed-of technological advances, has come a distancing between the patient and the physician.

In a TED Talk from 2011 by Dr Abraham Verghese, who is a physician and an author (Professor for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at Stanford University Medical School and Senior Associate Chair of the Department of Internal Medicine), he addresses this loss of contact which is so emphasized in our parasha.
Dr Verghese bemoans the replacement of physically examining and talking to the patient, with batteries of tests. He says, “I am not a Luddite. I teach at Stanford. I’m a physician practicing with cutting-edge technology. But I’d like to make the case …that when we shortcut the physical exam, when we lean towards ordering tests instead of talking to and examining the patient, we not only overlook simple diagnoses that can be diagnosed at a treatable, early stage, but we’re losing much more than that. We’re losing a ritual. We’re losing a ritual that I believe is transformative, transcendent, and is at the heart of the patient-physician relationship.” Dr Verghese suggests that “the most important innovation, I think, in medicine to come in the next 10 years… is the power of the human hand — to touch, to comfort, to diagnose and to bring about treatment.” In his novel, Cutting for Stone, one character asks, “Tell us please, what treatment in an emergency is administered by ear?” and the response is “Words of comfort.”
Dr Verghese compares the ward rounds during which he and other students accompanied the senior physician and went from bed to bed examining and talking to the patients, with the situation so common today, where the patient is discussed in a separate room, reduced to data and images on a computer screen. He says, “…the patient in the bed has almost become an icon for the real patient who’s in the computer. I’ve actually coined a term for that entity in the computer. I call it the iPatient. The iPatient is getting wonderful care all across America. The real patient often wonders, Where is everyone? When are they going to come by and explain things to me? Who’s in charge? There’s a real disjunction between the patient’s perception and our own perceptions as physicians of the best medical care.”
Dr Verghese was influenced by his experience with patients with chronic fatigue. He notes that these are difficult patients: in addition to their symptoms, they have often suffered rejection by their families and have not been helped by the medical profession and thus have low expectations of this next physician. He says, “…I learned very early on with my first patient that I could not do justice to this very complicated patient with all the records they were bringing in a new patient visit of 45 minutes. There was just no way. And if I tried, I’d disappoint them.
“And so I hit on this method where I invited the patient to tell me the story for their entire first visit, and I tried not to interrupt them. We know the average American physician interrupts their patient in 14 seconds. And if I ever get to heaven, it will be because I held my peace for 45 minutes and did not interrupt my patient. I then scheduled the physical exam for two weeks hence, and when the patient came for the physical, I was able to do a thorough physical, because I had nothing else to do. I like to think that I do a thorough physical exam, but because the whole visit was now about the physical, I could do an extraordinarily thorough exam.”
He recalls that his very first patient continued to tell more of his history in the second session, but as Dr Verghese slipped into his “ritual” examination, the patient gradually became quiet. He continuues, “And I remember having a very eerie sense that the patient and I had slipped back into a primitive ritual in which I had a role and the patient had a role. And when I was done, the patient said to me with some awe, “I have never been examined like this before.” He recognized that something important had occurred in the exchange, so he consulted with his colleagues in the Anthropology Department at Stanford. “…they immediately said to me, “Well you are describing a classic ritual.” And they helped me understand that rituals are all about transformation.”
Dr Verghese concludes by relating that in the early days of HIV, before the advent of drugs that transformed the treatment of the disease, he would attend his patients in the last days of their lives. He reads a passage that he wrote, describing such a scene, in which the skeletal patient, unable to talk, weakly points at his chest, inviting Dr Verghese to examine him one more time. “It was an offering, an invitation. I did not decline.
“I percussed. I palpated. I listened to the chest. I think he surely must have known by then that it was vital for me just as it was necessary for him. Neither of us could skip this ritual, which had nothing to do with detecting rales in the lung, or finding the gallop rhythm of heart failure. No, this ritual was about the one message that physicians have needed to convey to their patients. Although, God knows, of late, in our hubris, we seem to have drifted away. We seem to have forgotten – as though, with the explosion of knowledge, the whole human genome mapped out at our feet, we are lulled into inattention, forgetting that the ritual is cathartic to the physician, necessary for the patient – forgetting that the ritual has meaning and a singular message to convey to the patient.
“And the message, which I didn’t fully understand then, even as I delivered it, and which I understand better now is this: I will always, always, always be there. I will see you through this. I will never abandon you. I will be with you through the end.”

Shemini: The Eternal Debate

Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on 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.(Vayikra 10: 1-2)

Nadav’s impassioned tones
resemble flames of fire,
forever flicking, leaping;
his fierce desire
to cleave to God
reflects from deep-set eyes.

Avihu listens spellbound;
with face aflame
and gaze entranced,
drawn as a moth, inexorably,
to the immolating light.

Elazar proposes softly
in his sober steadfast way
to keep the glimmering flames alight,
to tend the everlasting glow:
a humble daily practice,
offered up to God.

Itamar heeds, yet wishes sometimes
that he too could ascend the heights,
could scale the pinnacles of zeal –
to give himself to God – but then
return and serve again.


We learn in Parashat Shemini of the episode of the deaths of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. As the inauguration of the Tabernacle (Mishkan) is drawing to a close, these two brothers are struck dead by fire, because they offer up a “strange fire” of their own volition. The commentators struggle mightily with what exactly their sin was, and why they were punished so severely and with no warning. The various reasons suggested, many of which are critical of the pair, include being drunk at the time, arrogance, defiance of authority and a lack of faith. Some, though, defend the pair, with suggestions that theirs was an act of supreme love and joy at the consecration service, which somehow got out of hand.

In a commentary on Shemini, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/shemini/5774/enthusiastic-and-committed-judaism, Rabbi Danielle Upbin cites Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezofsky, the Slonimer Rebbe (1911–2000), in his work Netivot Shalom on Parashat Shemini. He suggests that Nadav and Avihu’s intentions in offering the fire and incense were good, and maybe even they were correct in the way in which they carried it out. Yet, he suggests that they did not check with Moses and Aaron whether their interpretation was correct. Nor did they co-ordinate with each other, as the verse says, “each took his fire pan” (Vayikra 10:1). She says, “Nadav and Avihu went rogue. And in so doing, they disconnected themselves physically and spiritually from their community. That notion of connectivity — to authority, to one another, and to community — the Slonimer explains, is what allows for the presence and protection of God. When that sense of connection is gone, so goes the Presence.”
Rabbi Upbin concludes, “From this interpretation of the narrative, we learn today about the privileged place of  “connection” in Judaism. Connection comes in many forms: it is the recognition of an authority and tradition that speaks to us and moves through us; it is the glue that binds us as community builders; it is the feeling that our individual involvement matters; it is the impetus for us to take our place as part of the fabric of our people’s greater narrative.
“Had Nadav and Avihu acted in the same manner — drawing close to God through their personal talent and wisdom while also retaining their sense of “connection” in all its manifestations — the narrative might have taken a different turn.”

In a further commentary on the parasha, http://parshathoughtsmore.blogspot.co.il/search?q=shemini, Dr Rachel Anisfeld notes that every close relationship demands a balance “between passion and devotion, between the spark of love and the daily acts of loyalty and caretaking.” She says so too does our relationship with God. “There are the peak moments of connection and spirituality, the highs of Yom Kippur or of a particularly good moment of prayer or song – these are indeed essential to keeping the flame alive. But there is also the daily devotion of simply being there, the myriad commandments one does even if one is not feeling so excited at that moment.”
Dr Anisfeld suggests that Nadav and Avihu went overboard with their passion, that they were on a “spiritual high”. But she adds that “passion was only part of what was needed at this particular moment. The people standing around watching had already witnessed God’s Presence descend upon the Tabernacle, had fallen on their faces in ecstasy at the sight of the divine flame consuming the sacrifices. Nadav and Avihu went one step further in this direction of passion, and it turns out that one step further is a complete consumption by God of humanity. What was needed at that particular moment was not passion, but a sense of boundaries, and a sense of the security of “commandedness.” The people needed to know that to be close to God is not only about attaining spiritual highs (and perhaps for some not at all about that, at least not to the level that Nadav and Avihu were capable), but simply about being a loyal, devoted servant of God – keeping His commandments.”
Dr Anisfeld continues that while we may seek spiritual highs, we do not always reach that level, and “T[t]he bread and butter of one’s relationship with God, like one’s relationship with one’s spouse and children, is daily devotion, a sense of steadfastness – standing there through thick and thin, through the dry days and the high days and the low days, but still being there to make the lunches and say the brachot (blessings). It is a relief that sometimes all God wants of me is simply to show up, to be my small uninspired self in His presence, to show my devotion through emptiness and humility as well as through passion and intense emotion.” She calls this the “daily minyan attitude” toward religious practice and suggests that the people who show up faithfully are more notable “not by their passion, but simply by their steadfastness. What they are offering up to God is a different sacrifice than Nadav and Avihu’s burst of love, aflame with a wild fire. It is a daily humble expression of connection and loyalty.”

In another commentary on the parasha, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5356, Reb Mimi Feigelson discusses the behavior of these two sons of Aaron. She says she bases her discussion on a story that she heard many years before from Prof. Benny Ish-Shalom. She recounts the story:
“Every summer Rav Kook (first chief rabbi of Eretz Yisrael, d.1935) and Rav Charlap (chief rabbi of Yerushalayim) would go for their summer vacation to Kiryat Ya’arim (right outside of Yerushalayim). One morning after they awoke, Rav Kook went outside and had a lengthy and animated conversation with the gardener about the trees, the plants and the soil. He then returned to their room and began to recite the shacharit [morning] prayers. As the evening began to descend Rav Charlap finally found the courage to question Rav Kook regarding the unusual behavior of that morning – why didn’t he begin with his morning prayers like every day and then go out and talk to the gardener?
“Rav Kook responded: “When I woke up this morning I felt that if I prayed immediately I’d come to “klot hanefesh” (my soul would ascend to God) so I went outside and talked to the gardener, and only when I felt ‘grounded’ in this world did I come in to pray the morning prayers.”
Reb Mimi says she treasured this story for about ten years, and then one day, walking along on her way to learn with Rabbi Mickey Rosen, she realised that actually, she did not really like the story at all!
She continues, “I thought to myself: “If I were to wake up one morning and realize that when praying I would say “Shma Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad” (Hear Israel Hashem is our God, Hashem is one) and at that moment my soul would cleave to God, would I not do it? Would I hold myself back from that moment of union that I have been yearning for my whole life? I couldn’t understand why Rav Kook held back, why he denied himself from reaching that ultimate peak of union with God.”
She shared the story and her problem with it with Rabbi Rosen. She says, “His response was immediate: “There are two ways to give a gift – one way is to give the gift that you think is the ultimate gift, the other is to give a gift that the recipient wants to receive. You think that to give your soul back to God is the greatest gift you can give Him, but what Rav Kook understood is that the gift that God wants to receive is our service here in this world. It was only when he could pray in a manner that would keep him in this world did he begin to pray.” ”
Reb Mimi adds, “I have been walking with the story for twenty years and with Rabbi Rosen’s answer for the last ten. I cannot tell the story without it. While I honor the truth of it I cannot let go of my question: “Why did Rav Kook hold back, why did he deny himself from reaching that ultimate peak of union with God?” I believe I may be a descendant of Nadav and Avihu.
“In Shmot (Exodus 24, 9) Nadav and Avihu ascend the mountain with Moshe, Aharon and the seventy elders. They see God. And now, in our portion, they are inside the Mishkan, yet again with the potential of “Lifnei Hashem” (before God).” How could they hold back? How could they not run in to the inner chamber with a personal offering to God?”