Shemini & 2 Samuel: Separating Holiness

March 16, 2014 at 3:04 pm | Posted in Samuel 2, Shemini | 2 Comments
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Aaron, who becomes the high priest on the eighth day of his ordination, hears directly from God in this week’s Torah portion, Shemini (Eighth). God tells him that priests must not drink on duty, so they can perform two important jobs:

Lehavdil between hakodesh and the ordinary, and between the ritually-impure and the ritually-pure.  And to teach the children of Israel all the decrees that God spoke to them through Moses. (Leviticus 10:10-11)

lehavdil (לְהַבְדֹּיל) = to make a distinction, to separate, to segregate, to distinguish

hakodesh (הַקֹּדֶשׁ) = the holy, the sacred; everything that is dedicated to God.

In the Hebrew Bible, objects, places, and days can all be holy, if they are reserved for serving God.

The holiest object is the ark, which holds two stone tablets that God wrote on at the top of Mount Sinai. When the ark is inside the innermost chamber of the sanctuary, the holy of holies, God’s presence manifests in the empty space right above its lid. No one but Moses and the high priest may see the ark when it is inside the holy of holies.

According to the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, when the ark is transported to a new location, it is draped with three layers of coverings to protect people from seeing it. No one may touch it except for the priests carrying it by its poles. It is so holy that touching or seeing it would be almost like touching or seeing God.

The haftarah reading for this week’s Torah portion is a selection from the second book of Samuel which describes how the ark is transported to Jerusalem from the house of Avinadav, near the Philistine border. The Philistines had captured the ark in battle, then sent it back across the border. A descendant of Avinadav named Elazar was anointed as a priest to take care of the ark. By the time King David arrives, 20 years later, the men of the house of Avinadav who serve the ark are Achio and Uzza.

They mounted the ark of God on a new cart, and they carried it away from the house of Avinadav, which was on the hill. Uzza and Achio, sons of Avinadav, were guiding the new cart. (2 Samuel 6:3)

Achio walks in front of the ox-cart, and Uzza has the honor of walking beside the ark. The procession includes King David and thousands of Israelites dancing to the sound of musical instruments. Then the oxen pulling the cart stumble.

They came as far as the threshing-place of Nakhon; then Uzza reached out to the ark of God, and he grabbed at it, because the cattle let [the cart] go off by itself. And God’s anger flared up against Uzza, and struck him down there, over the heedlessness. And he died there beside the ark of God. (2 Samuel 6:6-7)

While Uzza is accompanying the ark, he is serving as a priest, who must make a distinction between the holy and the ordinary. His impulsive action, however well-meant, fails to distinguish between the perilously holy ark and an ordinary ox-cart load.

King David sends the ark to a nearby house, and tries a second procession to Jerusalem three months later.

David was whirling around with all his might before God; and David had belted on a linen  efod. (2 Samuel 6:14)

efod (אֵפוֹד) = a tunic or cuirass with the front and back tied together, worn by the high priest as part of his ritual costume.

David is dancing in front of the ark, but the ark is so holy that the Torah says he is dancing before God. His whirling around with all his might reminds me of the prophets who speak in ecstasy in Exodus and the two books of Samuel. Although David is wearing a priest’s efod, he acts more like a prophet filled with the spirit of God—until the ark has been placed inside the tent in Jerusalem.

Then King David soberly plays the role of high priest, performing all the rituals without a hitch.

They brought the ark of God and set it up in its place inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and David brought up rising-offerings before God, and the wholeness-offerings. And when David finished bringing up the rising-offerings and the wholeness offerings, then he blessed the people in the name of the God of Armies. (2 Samuel 6:17-18)

David treats the ark as holy in two ways: first as a prophet filled with the spirit of God, second as a high priest conducting ritual. Both responses to holiness are acceptable in the bible, at the appropriate time and place.

When King David goes home, one of his wives criticizes him for exposing his private parts while dancing. She is concerned about what people will think of him. But what occurs to me is that David is wearing the priest’s efod without underpants. The books of Exodus and Leviticus require priests to wear linen underpants while they are on duty, so they will not be exposed.

This seems like one clear failure to distinguish the holy from the ordinary. But God overlooks a few of David’s infractions earlier in the bible, and God overlooks this one as well.

The ark was lost with the fall of the first temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. The innermost chamber of the second temple was empty, but it was still called the holy of holies, and treated with awe and reverence. The high priest still entered it only once a year, on Yom Kippur.

Since the fall of the second temple in 70 C.E., Jews have made do with objects and places of lesser holiness. Instead of an ark, we have Torah scrolls, which are unrolled for everyone to see. Instead of a sanctuary with a holy of holies, we have gravesites and the broken temple wall in Jerusalem.

The most holy things left for us are holy days: feast and fast days every year, and Shabbat every week. On Saturday nights, we make a havdallah, a separation, between the holy day of Shabbat that has ended and the ordinary days of the week to come. The havdallah blessing concludes with some of the words in God’s instructions to Aaron:

Blessed are you, God, hamavdil between hakodesh and the ordinary.

Hamavdil means “the one who makes a distinction”, and hakodesh means “the holy”. The world God created includes a distinction between the holy and the ordinary, which we must discern and act upon.

I think treating a day as holy is harder than treating an object or a place as holy. The sun sets and rises on Shabbat the way it does on any other day; the only difference is what we do. Even if we try to dedicate every moment of Shabbat to serving God, we still have to do some things in the realm of the ordinary.

Maybe we can be like King David, and serve God with enough enthusiasm to make up for serving God imperfectly.

Still, one question remains in our modern age:  What counts as serving God?


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  1. […] When the oxen pulling the cart stumble, Uzzah instinctively reaches out and grabs at the ark—and God strikes Uzzah dead.  (See my post Shemini & 2 Samuel: Separating Holiness.) […]

  2. […] stretched over.  All of these jobs are critical, and an error may result in death.  (See my post Shemini & 2 Samuel: Separating Holiness.)  They are also jobs that require physical strength and […]

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