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Parshat Shemini: How are we meant to draw close to God?

Sefer Vayikra provides answers to difficult theological questions. How do you come close to a transcendent being? In what way can we worship a God who has no physical body? Why does the Torah dedicate almost a book and half to the intricate details and renderings of a temporary structure (the Mishkan - Tabernacle)?

The Torah is comprised of many layers and often the deeper more theological ideas require us to get ‘under the skin’ of the Torah, to uncover a meta-narrative that nourishes and expands on the more technical and legal aspects of the text. The book of Vayikra contains only two narratives – one of which is in this week’s Parsha of Shemini and the other a little later in the book and they both address a central human question allied to Divine worship: how are we meant to draw near to God?

A theme we have previously addressed is that of chaos and order. Humans are constantly navigating a path between the two. Order allows us to function in the world. It provides us with certainty and structure and allows us to create abstract cognitive categories from which to form a relationship to something external to the self. Order is also central to the human conception of God. When He created the world, He created order from chaos. In the beginning the world is תהו ובהו - some form of primordial chaos. God divides and separates, and in doing so creates an order from which humanity can emanate and exist. But to be a creator necessitates a degree of chaos. It is only from within the תהו ובהו that creation can emerge. Hence humans, being imitatio dei - in the Divine image - also require a modicum of chaos to birth creativity.  The tension between order and chaos informs not just the way we create in the world but also the way we relate to the world and others. Order, i.e. rules, frameworks, routine, and boundaries are a prerequisite of any meaningful relationship. But equally, without spontaneity, individual expression and acts of surprise and desire, a relationship will eventually wither and die. Each has a place and a time. This is true of human relationships and even more so of the human-Divine relationship.

The book of Bereshit catalogues the evolving relationship between man and God. It showcases many different paradigms of that relationship, the struggles, the tumultuous highs and lows as well as its varying expressions - be it prayer, spontaneous sacrifice, protest, inner conscience, external revelation, or dreams. In most cases, the expression seems to be outside an ‘official’ channel of law and ritual. Once we become a nation with a holy mission and a national legal manifesto - the Torah - our relationship with God takes on a more calibrated framework. No longer is individual spontaneous expression enough, nor is it the ONLY channel of Divine worship. The creation of the Golden Calf was a national expression of spontaneous worship of God. But as mentioned in a previous blog ( ) it was not enough. From the perspective of a nation, especially one which had gone through 210 years in slavery, we needed to create a society based on a structured framework for national Divine worship. For each individual to randomly worship as they like may serve the immediate needs of creative expression but would fail to serve the long-term needs of sustaining a covenantal nation. Hence something new had to be initiated: a priesthood, whose sacrificial duties would be the public and official channel of Divine worship. Individual expressions of Divine love and connection were not forbidden, but they were also no longer the sole model.

Thus, Sefer Vayikra is primarily a book about laws, rules and boundaries that form the framework for national religious worship. It provides a model that requires submission to Divine authority through boundaries and order. The continued emphasis in Vayikra between holy and profane, required and forbidden, pure and impure reflect this shift from the early, more individual spontaneous responses. The building of the Mishkan through calibrated orders and exacting laws is the ultimate manifestation of this new model.


At this point we return to the narrative in our Parsha. Two sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, bring a sacrifice and are immediately consumed by a Divine fire.  The context is important. As a result of the sin of the Golden Calf, God removed His presence from among the people. The creation of the Mishkan and it’s eight-day dedication symbolises the return of the Divine presence in the camp. At the very moment that God’s presence is revealing Itself to the people, Nadav and Avihu spontaneously decide to bring a ‘foreign fire – אש זרה – which was not commanded.’ They are immediately consumed by the sacrificial fire. God’s words to Aaron are particularly solemn “Through those close to me I have been sanctified in the face of the people.”


It is a very enigmatic passage. When we look back, we find that Aaron’s sons are in fact important and righteous leaders and the text has slim pickings when it comes to delineating their precise sin. How egregious is their transgression that it deserves immediate death? Why are God’s words to Aaron so ambiguous and in what way is He ‘sanctified’ through them? How does this narrative relate to the overall theme of Vayikra and what theological message might it have for us today?


I believe it goes back to the idea of order and chaos, boundaries and spontaneity, boredom and desire, routine and ecstasy.

The people have built the Mishkan primarily as a way of rectifying the sin of the Golden Calf.  God has repeatedly emphasised that the rectification for their sin must come through a strict adherence to the word and command of God. [1] As a nation, spontaneous individual desire and ecstasy is inadequate since it can easily spiral into a mob mentality and nihilistic behaviour. The ‘fire’ of our passion can become unruly and dangerous. Coming from the monotony of slavery, the people are enraptured by the metaphorical (and literal) ‘fire’ of the Divine. They are amazed and dazzled by the miracles and God’s voice at Mount Sinai.


The early passionate manifestations of any love affair will die if the lovers do not learn to live within the realm of routine, boredom, and boundaries. The Mishkan is to God and the people what daily routine and gestures of loyalty are to a marriage. But when talking about God, the boundaries are perhaps even more defined and more important. The pedagogical truth enacted through the many months spent meticulously following Divine command in building the Mishkan would have been totally shot through if there would not have been an immediate cessation of the spontaneous act of a ‘foreign fire,’ even though it was an act of love and devotion to God on the part of Aaron’s sons.


Immediately following the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, God repeats the demand for clear demarcation between different realms and elements: pure and impure, holy and profane, once again hinting to us that the sin of the two sons lay in their inability to observe the boundaries between God and man.


Much like their father Aaron, who describes the calf as emerging from fire (Exodus 32:24) rather than being carved by human fiat as the Torah’s account describes it (Exodus 32:4), the brothers’ motives were pure but their method was misplaced. The timing could not have been worse. If God would have allowed them to continue to live, the entire educational and national pedagogical edifice of the Mishkan would have been ruptured. Hence, He had no choice but to kill them and through their deaths have His name sanctified – that is the people would understand the essence of Divine worship. To approach the Divine, to have a relationship with a transcendent Being, requires a strict and structured framework. After the great fire and lightning and wonders at Sinai, the nation needed to be taught the secret of a sustainable relationship. They needed to be shown how to channel passionate frenzied fire into the warmth of an incandescent perpetual glow.


Rav Yehuda Amital זצ"ל was fond of quoting the Maharal in Netivot Olam (Netiv Ahavat Ha-Re'a), who brought an addition to the midrash that discusses the most important verse in the Torah.


Ben Zoma says: We have found a more inclusive verse, and it is, Shema Yisrael
Ben Nanas says: We have found a more inclusive verse, and it is, ’Love your neighbour as yourself.’
Shimon Ben Pazi says: We have found a more inclusive verse, and it is, ’The first lamb you shall sacrifice in the morning and the second lamb you shall sacrifice in the evening‘ (Exodus 29:39).
Rabbi Ploni stood up and said: The halakha is in accordance with Ben Pazi, as it is written, ‘As all that I show you, the structure of the Mishkan and all its vessels: so shall you do’ (Shemot 25:9).


The Maharal questions the meaning of this and why the law is in accordance with Ben Pazi. He answers “A person who worships God consistently proves that he is a servant of God.”  The structure of the Mishkan and the corresponding order of the daily sacrifices represent the central axis on which our relationship to the Divine revolves. THIS is the most important aspect of the Torah since it bears the hallmark of longevity and sustainability.


Every relationship requires moments of surprise and desire born of chaos and spontaneity - this is what keeps it alive. But its sustainability and longevity, as well its meaning and purpose is born in the daily grind of routine and small acts of love, loyalty, and trust. Our relationship with God is no different. Today, when daily prayer has replaced sacrificial duty, there is still a need for autonomous expressions of love, prayer, and supplication. But they cannot replace the daily ritual of prayer and worship. Each has a space and place, time and condition and our challenge is to understand when to employ each model. This is both a challenge and a privilege as it allows us to be part of and invested in the relationship with God so that it can continue to flourish and remain alive even after the immediacy of the encounter has faded.


Shabbat Shalom.

[1] See Parshat Pekudei, where the words 'as God commanded Moshe', feature after each paragraph.

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