Aaron and his four sons have just finished their eight days of ordination in this week’s Torah portion, Shemini (“Eighth”). Then the two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring unauthorized incense into the Tent of Meeting, and the fire of God consumes them. (See my post Shemini: Fire Meets Fire.) After their bodies are dragged out,
Then God spoke to Aaron, saying: “Do not drink wine or strong drink, neither you nor your sons with you, when coming into the Tent of Meeting, and you shall not die. [This is] a decree forever for your generations: to havdil between the holy and the ordinary, and between the ritually-impure and the ritually-pure; and to instruct the children of Israel on all the decrees that God spoke to them through Moses.” (Leviticus/Vayikra 10:10-11)
havdil (הַבְדֹּיל) = make a distinction, separate, segregate, distinguish.
The new priests already know they must officiate at the altar; tend the menorah, bread table, and incense altar inside the Tent of Meeting; and guard the ark in the curtained-off Holy of Holies in back. Now God says they must distinguish between the holy and the ordinary and keep them separate; and teach God’s decrees to the Israelites. (Since a priest would need a clear head to perform both duties, many commentators connect these duties with God’s injunction against drinking on the job.) Although Nadav and Avihu did not disobey a specific decree, they made a serious error when they brought unauthorized incense into the holy Tent of Meeting, perhaps into the Holy of Holies. A priest must not violate a holy space.
What does it mean to distinguish and segregate the holy from the ordinary?
In the Hebrew Bible, holiness is not a feeling. The holy (hakodesh, הַקֹּדֶשׁ) means whatever is dedicated to God. Objects, places, and days are all holy if they are reserved for serving God.
The holiest object is the ark, which holds two stone tablets that God gave Moses on 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 inside the Holy of Holies. When the tent-sanctuary is dismantled and Levites transport the ark to the Israelites’ next camp, priests drape three layers of coverings over it to protect people from seeing it. No one may touch it except for the Levites carrying its poles.1
The haftarah reading accompanying this week’s Torah portion is a selection from the second book of Samuel which describes how King David transports the ark from a private house near the border of Philistia to his new capital in Jerusalem.2 In this story, as in Shemini, someone serving as a priest fails to differentiate between the holy and the ordinary.
The ark resides in a private house near the border because 20 years earlier, in the first book of Samuel, two priests who had a reputation for being derelict in their duties took the ark out of the sanctuary in Shiloh and into battle, where the Philistines captured it.3 After the enemy brought it home, their idol of Dagon fell over and broke, and the Philistines were plagued by mice and hemorrhoids. They sent the ark back across the border into Israelite territory, where the people of Beit-Shemesh rejoiced and make animals offerings on the spot. But then 70 men looked into the ark and died.4 Frightened, the remaining men of Beit-Shemesh sent the ark to the house of Avinadav in Kiryat-Yarim, where it remained for 20 years.5
In the haftarah reading from the second book of Samuel, King David decides to transport the ark to Jerusalem.
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, descendants of Avinadav, were guiding the new cart. (2 Samuel 6:3)
Elazar, Avinidav’s “consecrated son”, had served as the first priest to guard the ark.6 But after 20 years there is a new generation of guardians. 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 grabbed at it, because the cattle had let [the cart] go off by itself. And God’s anger flared up against Uzza, and [God] struck him down there, over the heedless error. 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 “havdil 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 again three months later. This time the ark reaches the tent the king has prepared. As the procession crosses the City of David in Jerusalem,
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.
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 the foundation wall of the place where the temple once stood in Jerusalem.
But Jews still have the holy days set out in the Torah: our annual feast and fast days, and Shabbat every week. On Friday night we light candles and say blessings to distinguish the new seventh day, and on Saturday night 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 words from God’s instructions to Aaron:
Blessed are you, God, [who] hamavdil between the holy and the ordinary.
I find 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 in what we do that day. And even if we try to dedicate every moment to serving God on a Shabbat or on an annual holy day, and avoid any activity that counts as labor, we still have to spend some of our time getting dressed, eating, and so forth, just as on an ordinary day.
And Jews who fail to observe Shabbat properly are not struck dead.
Segregating the holy from the ordinary is critically important in the bible, where God is present as the threat of magical annihilation. Today, treating Torah scrolls and other religious objects with reverence, and setting aside certain days for special prayers and actions, serve the purpose of helping humans to approach the whole idea of God with awe and love.
Is that enough? Perhaps today we can serve God more by bringing the holy into the ordinary, by bringing awe and love into more places and more times.
- Numbers 4:4-5, 4:15, 4:20.
- The haftarah begins with 2 Samuel 6:1. It ends somewhere between 2 Samuel 6:19 and 7:17, depending on whether the community follows the Ashkenazi, Sefardi, Misrachi, or Italian tradition.
- 1 Samuel 2:12-17, 4:3-11.
- And [God’s] hand was on the people of Beit Shemesh, because they looked into the ark of God, and [God’s] hand [struck down] 70 men of Beit Shemesh, 50,000 men. And the people mourned because God had struck a great blow against the people. (1 Samuel 6:19). Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) wrote that this passage means each of the 70 men that God smote was the equal of 50,000.
- 1 Samuel 7:1-2.
- 1 Samuel 7:1.