Every day I explain to my 92-year-old mother why I moved her into assisted living near me. Every day she says she managed just fine living alone, and every day I remind her of serious problems that she ignored and then forgot about.
Sometimes I explain reality to her in person, sometimes over the phone. And she believes me—until she forgets what I said. I am touched that she trusts me now, and relieved that she has moved beyond her old habit of inventing her personal version of reality and defending it.
This week I am still solving problems and helping my mother unpack, so I do not have the quiet time I need to write a new blog post. But I have been thinking about this week’s Torah portion, Shemini, in which God creates a fire that sweeps out of the new tent-sanctuary and ignites the animal offerings on the altar. Immediately after this divine consecration of the altar, the high priest Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring their own incense into the tent-sanctuary. They, too, are immolated by divine fire.
Do they want to sacrifice themselves to God? Or do they ignore the plain evidence of God’s ferocious power, and stroll into the sanctuary without even asking Moses or Aaron if they are doing the right thing? Are they so swept away by their desire for divine union that they forget how dangerous God is? Or are they in denial about reality?
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.
Something shocking happens after the first priests, Aaron and his four sons, consecrate the new altar in this week’s Torah portion, Shemini (“Eighth”).1
Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aaron, each took his fire-pan and he put embers on it and he placed incense on it. And they brought alien fire in front of God, which [God] had not commanded them [to do]. And fire went out from before God, and it devoured them, and they died in front of God. Then Moses said to Aaron: “It is what God spoke, saying: Through those close to me, I will be proven holy; and in the presence of all the people I will be glorified.” And Aaron, vayidom. (Leviticus/Vayikra 10:1-3)
vayidom(וַיִּדֺּם) = he was silent, he became quiet; he was motionless. (A form of the verb damam, דָּמַם = was silent, quiet, still, motionless.2)
Why do Aaron’s two older sons bring unauthorized incense into the new tent-sanctuary? Why did Moses tell Aaron, who has just watched his sons die, that God said, “Through those close to me, I will be proven holy”? Why is Aaron is silent and still?
I have offered some speculations in previous blog posts. (See Shemini: Fire Meets Fire and Shemini: Mourning in Silence.) This year I wondered why Aaron’s silence continues beyond the initial shock of the catastrophe. Does guilt tie his tongue? Is he too exhausted or frightened to make a move, except to obey an order? Or is it possible that he has a moment of enlightenment?
After the first shock, Aaron might be unable to move or make a noise because he is overwhelmed by guilt. Maybe he set a bad example when he made an alien idol, the golden calf. Maybe he should have stopped Nadav and Avihu the instant when they filled their fire-pans. Maybe God is punishing him for doing the wrong thing.
After the first shock, he might remain silent at some signal from his brother Moses. As soon as Moses has arranged for Aaron’s cousins to remove the bodies, he orders Aaron and his two surviving sons to refrain from mourning.3 Aaron obediently remains silent until a question comes up about an animal offering; then he has recovered enough to take initiative again.4
After the first shock, Aaron might realize that no one is safe, not even Moses’ family. He did not survive the episode of the golden calf because he was Moses’ brother, but merely because God had another plan. God chose all four of his sons to serve as priests, then killed two of them on their first day of service. This is life, and anything can happen. In a moment of non-attachment, Aaron waits quietly for whatever happens next.
All three of these attitudes can be expressed with silence, as we see in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Psalm 131.
Jeremiah and Guilt
In the book of Jeremiah, God declares through the prophet that all the people of Jerusalem will die because they are guilty of persistent wrongdoing. At one point, Jeremiah interrupts:
Why are we sitting here?
Let us gather and enter fortified towns, venidmah there.
For God, our God, hadimanu,
And has made us drink venom,
Because we offended God. (Jeremiah 8:14)
venidmah (וְנִדְּמָה) = and we will be still and wait. (Another form of the verb damam.)
hadimanu (הֲדִמָּנוּ) = has silenced us. (Also a form of damam.)
Jeremiah repeatedly declares that the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem will succeed because God is punishing the people for their sins. They are guilty, so they must be silent.
Ezekiel and Obedience
Moses tells Aaron and his surviving sons that priests may not bare their heads or tear their clothing even if a close family member dies. All the other Israelites can wail and mourn, but not the holy priests.
Mourning is also silenced in the book of Ezekiel, a prophet from a family of priests (who would be priest himself if the Babylonians had not deported him from Jerusalem). Ezekiel reports that God told him:
Human, I am here taking away from you by pestilence what is precious in your eyes. And you may not beat the breast, nor wail, nor shed a tear. Groan in dom. You may not do mourning rites for the dead. You shall tie on your head-dress and put your sandals on your feet, and you may not cover your lips, and you may not eat the bread of other men. (Ezekiel 24:16-17)
dom (דֺּם) = silence. (From the verb damam.)
Ezekiel’s wife dies that night, and he obeys God’s orders. When the Jews in his community in Babylon ask him why he is not mourning, Ezekiel replies that this is how they should act when the temple in Jerusalem falls and the sons and daughters they left behind die by the sword. Like priests, they must not exhibit mourning even when God lets their beloved city and their children perish.
However, they must also remember their guilt.
… you shall not beat the breast and you shall not wail. But you shall rot in your crimes, and you shall moan, each man to his brother. (Ezekiel 24:23)5
Psalm 131 and Acceptance
After Nadav and Avihu die, Aaron is silent and motionless, a powerless man with nothing to do but wait.
Quiet acceptance is the theme of Psalm 131, a short poem translated here in full:
A song of ascents for David.
God, my heart is not haughty
And my eyes are not arrogant.
I have not gone after greatness
Or wonders too difficult for me.
I have found equilibrium vedomamti my soul.
Like a weaned child on its mother,
Like a weaned child is my soul.
Wait, Israel, for God
From now until forever. (Psalm 131:1-3)
vedomamti (וְדוֹמַמְתִּי) = and I have made quiet. (Also a form of the verb damam.)
The speaker is humble, not striving to achieve. He or she is weaned from attachment and dependence, and has found equilibrium6 and an inner state of peace and quiet. Such a person can wait patiently for God to manifest.
Does Aaron become a quiet and humble man after God devours his two older sons? Does he reach a state of peaceful non-attachment? Perhaps; when God says Aaron must die without entering the “promised land”, Aaron, unlike Moses, does not make a fuss.7
What would it take for your soul to become quiet and peaceful after a disaster?
See my post Shemini: Prayer and Glory.
Some translators distinguish between damam I, which refers to silence and stillness, damam II, which refers to quiet sobbing or murmuring, and damam III, which refers to being destroyed or perishing. I believe this distinction is unnecessary. A word indicating silence and stillness can also indicate a noise that is barely audible, like the “still, small voice” (demamah, דְּמָנָה) of God in 1 Kings 19:12. And every time a word with the root damam has been translated as being devastated or perishing, it appears in a poetic passage that easily accommodates a translation in terms of silencing or stopping all motion. (See Psalm 31:18 and Jeremiah 25:37, 48:2, 49:26 and 50:30, and 51:6.)
The translation of וּנְמַקֺּתֶם בַּעֲוֹנֺתֵיכֶם as “and you shall rot in your crimes” comes from Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible, Vol. 2: Prophets, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2019.
Shiviti(שִׁוִּתִי) = I have leveled, I have made even, I have equated. Therefore my translation here is “I found equilibrium”.
Both men are doomed to die outside the “promised land” of Canaan in Numbers 20:12, although Moses is the one who shouts the words God finds offensive. Aaron quietly dies on Mt. Hor in Numbers 20:23-28. Moses complains about God’s decree in Deuteronomy 3:23-6.
How can anyone enter the Holy of Holies and come out alive?
God spoke to Moses after the death of two of the sons of Aaron, when they drew close in front of God and they died. And God said to Moses: “Speak to Aaron, your brother, so he shall not come at [just] any time into the holy place inside the curtain, to the front of the atonement-cover that is on the ark—so he will not die, because I appear in an anan over the atonement-cover. (Leviticus/Vayikra 16:2)
anan (עָנָן) cloud (of water vapor, smoke, or anything that hangs in the air and limits vision. Anan comes from the same root as onein,עוֹנֵן = made appear, conjured up.)
Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring unauthorized incense “close in front of God” earlier in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra. (See my post Shemini: Fire Meets Fire.) Their souls are consumed by a divine fire.1 Only in this week’s Torah portion, Acharey Mot (“After the death”), does the Torah indicate how “close in front of God” is too close.
A curtain separates the Tent of Meeting, a portable sanctuary for God, into two rooms. All the priests walk in and out of the larger front chamber, as they tend the incense altar, the bread table, and the menorah. The smaller back chamber is the Holy of Holies where the ark stands. The solid gold lid of the ark is called the atonement-cover or kaporet(כַּפֺּרֶת). According to the Torah, God speaks to Moses from the empty space above the lid.2
Do Nadav and Avihu go too far by bringing their unauthorized incense into the front chamber of the tent? Or did they go farther and transgress by entering the Holy of Holies? The commentary is divided, but the beginning of Acharey Motimplies that they walk all the way into the Holy of Holies.3
Then God says that even Aaron, the high priest, will die if he enters the back chamber at the wrong time. When is the right time? The ensuing instructions designate one day a year when the high priest will enter the Holy of Holies as part of a long ritual to make atonement with God.4 Identified here as “the tenth day of the seventh month”, this day came to be known as Yom Kippur.
On that day the high priest steps inside the Holy of Holies twice, and both times he sprinkles blood on the atonement-cover of the ark. The first time the blood comes from a bull he has slaughtered to make atonement for himself and his own household.5
The second time the blood comes from a goat he has slaughtered as an atonement offering for the people.6 (It is one of two goats chosen by lot; the other goat is sent out into the wilderness to Azazel. See my post Metzora & Acharey Mot: Doubles.)
But before the high priest sprinkles blood the first time, he must make a cloud of incense inside the Holy of Holies.
He shall take a pan-full of glowing charcoal embers from the side of the altar facing God, and two handfuls of finely-ground, fragrant incense, and he shall bring them through the curtain. And he shall place the incense on the fire, in front of God. And the anan of the incense shall conceal the atonement-cover that is over the Reminder [inside the ark], so he will not die. Then he shall take some blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger over the surface of the atonement-cover… (Leviticus/Vayikra 16:12-14)
Apparently when Aaron first enters the Holy of Holies, no cloud covers the lid of the ark. He has to generate a cloud from incense, on the spot.7 According to the Talmud, in the Holy of Holies inside the temple in Jerusalem the smoke from the high priest’s incense “rose straight up like a palm tree”. Then it spread out over the ceiling and down the walls until it filled the whole room.8
The chamber remains thick with smoke when the high priest returns with the goat’s blood. The Talmud says the smell of the incense on Yom Kippur spread out so far from the temple in Jerusalem that it made the goats in Jericho sneeze.9 (I imagine the goat led out into the wilderness for Azazel was also sneezing as it went.)
The phrase “so he will not die” is linked with ananan both at the beginning of the Torah portion and in the instructions for filling the Holy of Holies with smoke.
… so that he shall not come at [just] any time into the holy place inside the curtain, to the front of the atonement-cover … so he will not die, because I appear in an anan over the atonement-cover.
And he shall place the incense on the fire, in front of God. And the anan of the incense shall conceal the atonement-cover … so he will not die.
In verse 16:2, God appears in ananan over the ark. In verse 16:13, Aaron must generate an anan to conceal the ark. In verse 16:2, this sight of God in ananan seems to be fatal. In verse 16:13, a prolonged view of the ark cover seems to be fatal.
One cloud or two?
Are there two clouds, one conjured up by God and the other made by the high priest? Classic commentary is divided on the question.10 If there is only one cloud, the anan of incense, then what would Aaron see when he first walks into the Holy of Holies? This week’s Torah portion implies that he would see the lid of the ark and empty air above it. Since he would remain alive long enough to fill the room with incense, the sight of the atonement-cover would be fatal only when he sprinkles blood on it.
We can assume God is in residence, to witness the atonement ritual. The book of Exodus/Shemot tells us that no human being can see God’s “face” and live.11 Even Moses would not see God’s face when God spoke to him from above the lid of the ark. So God’s presence above the ark must be either invisible, or clouded by God’s ownanan.
From Egypt to Mount Sinai, and again from Mount Sinai to the Jordan River, God provides a pillar of cloud (by day) and fire (by night) to guide the Israelites and their fellow-travelers.12 At Mount Sinai, only Moses can enter the cloud of smoke at fire on the mountaintop, where he goes to converse with God before the tent-sanctuary is built.
But when Moses finishes assembling the sanctuary,
…the anan covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of God filled the dwelling-place. Moses was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting because the anan settled on it and the kavod of God filled the dwelling-place. (Exodus/Shemot 40:34-35)
kavod (כָּווֹד) = splendor, magnificence, weightiness. (When kavod refers to God, it is usually translated as “glory” or “presence”.)
Everyone can see the cloud on top of the tent roof, just as everyone can see the pillar of cloud and fire during the Israelites’ journeys. But even Moses cannot enter the Tent of Meeting when it is filled with the kavod of God—which might look, to human eyes, like either cloud or fire.
The cloud above the tent remains until God gives the signal to strike camp and journey on by lifting the cloud and restoring the guiding pillar of cloud and fire. The kavod inside the tent shrinks or disappears at some point while the tent is still pitched at Mount Sinai, before Moses takes Aaron inside in the portion Shemini.
And Moses and Aaron came into the Tent of Meeting and they went out and they blessed the people. Then the kavod of God appeared to all the people. And fire went out from in front of God … (Leviticus 9:23-24)
The fire consumes the offerings on the altar. Then Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu go into the tent with their unauthorized incense, and the fire appears again and consumes them. Yet after that, Aaron’s cousins safely enter the Tent of Meeting and carry out the two bodies. And from then on, the priests move freely in and out of the front chamber of the tent. Only the back chamber, the Holy of Holies, remains dangerous—probably because God might appear at any time in an anan of kavod over the ark.
If only the sight of God’s appearance in ananan is fatal, it follows that Aaron can enter the Holy of Holies safely on Yom Kippur because that is the day God will refrain from appearing in ananan—at least until the room is so full of incense smoke that the high priest could not see God’sanan.
Therefore when Aaron first steps into the Holy of Holies there is noanan inside. God is either invisible or not yet in residence. Aaron makes a cloud of incense in order to hide the atonement-cover of the ark, so he can sprinkle blood on it without dying. When the incense has filled the room, either God remains an invisible presence (as when God speaks to Moses in that spot), or God appears in a small anan of kavod over the ark, which Aaron cannot see through the smoke.
I can understand why God’s kavod appears as cloud and fire. We are finite creatures; when we try to understand the infinite, our minds cannot penetrate the mystery, and we find ourselves in a mental fog, glimpsing only transient flickers of enlightenment. When we try to turn our experiences of God into concrete words or images, we lose their essence.
Perhaps if human beings look straight at the anan of God’s kavod for more than a moment, our minds snap.13 Our bodies remain whole, like those of Nadav and Avihu, but we lose our personal selves or souls, and what remains cannot function in the world. This is the kind of death Aaron must avoid by entering the Holy of Holies under only two conditions:
when God has signaled that it is time to strike camp and move on; then Aaron and his two surviving sons take down the curtain and cover the ark with it.14
on Yom Kippur, the one day a year God has designated for the ritual of atonement.
The rest of the time, Aaron must stay out, so he will not accidentally see God appear in an anan.
While the incense altar in the front chamber of the Tent of Meeting is used for other purposes, the high priest creates an anan of incense inside the Holy of Holies only on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. This is the day when we ask God for forgiveness for everything we have done wrong over the past year. When we ask for that level of divine, inner forgiveness, it is not enough to know that God appears in a cloud. We need to know that we cannot see ourselves clearly, either: neither our motivations nor how our actions look to others. Like God, our own souls are manifest only in a cloud.
Yet as we grope through the fog of life, we can still try to become better people and try to serve God, whatever “God” might mean to each of us.
Even if we generate so much smoke our goats sneeze.
The fire consumes them in Leviticus 10:1-2. Aaron’s cousins carry the bodies of Nadav and Avihu out of the camp, holding them by their tunics, in Leviticus 10:4-5. Therefore the divine fire took their lives without incinerating their bodies or even burning their clothes.
Exodus 25:22, Numbers 7:89.
Since the divine fire passes through their tunics without charring them, it could also pass through both the inner curtain and the curtained doorway to the courtyard without damaging either curtain.
Leviticus 16:6, 16:14.
It seems clear to me that Aaron walks into the chamber carrying a pan of embers, two handfuls of ground incense (probably in a bag), and a bowl of bull’s blood (Leviticus 16:11-12). Once inside, he shall place the incense on the fire, in front of God, and the smoke conceals the atonement-cover (Leviticus 16:14). This was also the opinion of the Pharisees during the time of the second temple in Jerusalem. The Sadducees insisted the incense had to be smoking before the high priest entered the Holy of Holies. They also tied a rope around the high priest’s ankle so someone could pull him out if he did die inside the Holy of Holies.
Talmud Bavli, Yoma 53a.
Talmud Bavli, Yoma 39b.
Rashi and Maimonides wrote that Leviticus 16:2 refers to God’s cloud of kavod, so there were two clouds. Nachmanides and the Talmud Yerushalmi tractate Yoma say that Leviticus 16:2 refers to the high priest’s cloud of incense.
Exodus 33:18-23. Face (panim, פָּנִים) andkavod are used as synonyms in this passage.
Exodus 13:21-22, Leviticus 40:36-37.
The Talmud Bavli, Chagigah 14b, tells the story of four rabbis who entered pardes, paradise. Ben Azai looked at the divinekavod and died, Ben Zoma looked and went mad, and Elisha ben Abuyah (a.k.a. Acher) became an apostate. Only Akiva, the greatest rabbi of that era, returned whole.
When the Israelites break camp, Aaron and his two surviving sons take down the curtain in front of the Holy of Holies and cover the ark with it. Touching the uncovered ark would be fatal to the Levites who will carry it to the next campsite, but the priests are safe while they cover it. (Numbers 4:5-6, 4:15.)
Aaron and his four sons spend seven days at the entrance of the tent-sanctuary after Moses consecrates them as the first priests of the Israelites. (See my post Tzav: Filling Up a Priest.) On the eighth day, in this week’s Torah portion, Shemini (“Eighth”), Moses summons the new priests to make their first offerings on the altar. He lists the necessary animal and grain offerings, then adds:
“This is the thing that God commanded you shall do; and then the glory of God will appear to you.” (Leviticus/Vayikra 9:6)
Aaron, assisted by his sons, does the required slaughtering, blood splashing, and separation of the fatty parts (which make the best smoke for God’s pleasure). The five priests lay out everything to be burned on the altar. Aaron blesses the people. Moses takes Aaron into the Tent of Meeting, and when they emerge again, they bless the people together. (See my post Shemini: Prayer and Glory.)
… and the glory of God appeared to all the people. And fire went out from before God, and it devoured the rising-offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and they shouted with joy, and they fell on their faces. (Leviticus 9:23-24)
The “glory of God” appears as a fire rushing out of the tent-sanctuary and devouring the offerings on the altar. Since God’s presence is supposed to touch down in the Holy of Holies, the chamber at the back of the tent,1 the fire must miraculously travel through the curtains in two doorways without burning them.
In the midst of the rejoicing, Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, pick up their incense pans. Nobody has instructed them to do so; each one is moved by his own impulse. They put fire, in this case glowing embers, in their pans.
And Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aharon, each took his incense pan, and they placed fire in them, and they put incense upon it. And they brought near before God strange fire, that [God] had not commanded them. (Leviticus/Vayikra 10:1)
Nadav(נָדָב) = generous one, spontaneous giver. (From the same root as nedavah, נְדָבָה = a voluntary and spontaneous gift, usually to God.2)
Avihu(אֲבִיהוּא) = my father (אֲבִי) is he (הוּא).
And fire went out from before God, and it devoured them, and they died in front of God. (Leviticus 10: 2)
The Torah uses exactly the same Hebrew for “And fire went out from before God, and it devoured” on both occasions of divine fire.
What happened? Commentators have developed too many theories over the last two thousand years to list them all in this blog post. Here is my theory.
Nadav and Avihu are unlike their younger brothers, Elazar and Itamar, in two ways:
Seeing the Feet
Only Aaron’s two older sons walked halfway up Mount Sinai with Moses, Aaron, and the 70 elders. There they saw God’s feet on a pavement of sapphire (Exodus 24:10). The elders could probably accept this as a once-in-a-lifetime vision, since they could never be prophets or priests. But Nadav and Avihu are left hungry for more contact with God, more than the usual pillar of cloud and fire everyone sees. As priests, they feel they are entitled.
They wait for the next opportunity to behold God. In this week’s Torah portion, the miraculous fire of God comes forth and lands on the altar after Moses takes Aaron into the Tent of Meeting and back out again. Perhaps the way to experience another close encounter with God is to enter the Holy of Holies—now, while God is in the mood to manifest.
Aaron’s younger sons, Elazar and Itamar, did not climb Mount Sinai and see God’s feet. They are still waiting patiently for whatever comes their way in their new life as priests.
2. No time to think
The two older brothers are more impulsive than the two younger brothers—and the Torah signals this with their names. Nadav, whose name means “spontaneous giver”, decides to give himself as a nedavah to God. He is willing, even eager, to let his own ego go up in smoke in order to be united with God. So he picks up his incense pan and puts embers in it, even though Moses gave no such instructions.
Avihu, whose name means “he is my father”, takes after his father, Aaron. When the people asked for an idol, Aaron had a flash of inspiration and immediately made the golden calf, forgetting that Moses had said God detests idols.1Avihu is also forgetful in an important moment. He watches Moses take his father Aaron into the tent, probably into the Holy of Holies. And Avihu wants to do it, too. When he sees Nadav heading into the sanctuary with an incense pan, he has a flash of inspiration, and immediately seizes his own pan, forgetting that Moses had not authorized an incense offering.
Elazar (אֶלְעָזָר = God helps) and Itamar (אִיתָמָר = date-tree coast) are not so impulsive. Elazar wants to follow God’s rules in order to receive God’s help, and Itamar focuses on the physical things of this world. They both want to preserve their lives, and they know God’s presence is dangerous, so they avoid taking any unauthorized actions.
Nadav and Avihu, unlike their younger brothers, crave religious experiences and are willing to risk their lives. Symbolically, the “strange fire” they bring into the sanctuary is their burning desire to come closer to God—Nadav because of his impulsive generosity, and Avihu because he copies his father. Their consuming desires are met with a consuming fire from God, and they die—presumably in ecstasy.
Elazar and Itamar stick to following instructions and doing the job God has given them. They are rewarded with long lives and many descendants who also serve as priests.
Is it better to die in an ecstasy of worship, hurtling your soul into the unknown? Or is it better to keep your head and pay attention to the demands of this world? Both paths have their attractions, and perhaps there is a middle way, a life with one’s own feet on the ground and a vision of God’s feet in the sky.
But I prefer to be like Elazar and Itamar, and hope for a long life of service in this world, doing my work as well and as carefully I can. (And I am glad I was not given the bloody work of an ancient Israelite priest!)
(An earlier version of this essay was published in April 2010.)
Leviticus 16:2, Numbers 7:89.
A nedavah is an offering on the altar, from a human to God, throughout the bible except in Psalms 68:10 and 110:3.
And God spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to the whole community of the Children of Israel, and you shall say to them: Kedoshim you shall be, because kadosh am I, God, your God.” (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:1-2)
kedoshim (קְדֺשִׁים) = plural of kadosh.
kadosh (קָדוֹשׁ) = (As an adjective:) holy, sacred; set apart for religious use; dedicated to God. (As a noun:) something that is holy. (Kodesh, קֺדֶשׁ, has a similar meaning, and is also used in the Torah both as an adjective and as a noun.)
An object (such as a priest’s vestments, a tool for the altar, an animal offering) is kadosh in the Hebrew Bible when it is for religious use only. A place is (such as Mount Sinai, the temple, Jerusalem) is kadosh when God is present there, either manifesting as a fire or a voice, or simply known to dwell there. (See my posts Chayyei Sarah: A Holy Place and Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home.) The day of Shabbat is kadosh because it is dedicated to abstaining from ordinary activities in order to spend time in contemplation or worship of God.
God’s reputation is also called kadosh. Later in the Torah portion Kedoshim, God warns that anyone who gives a child to the Molekh, an alien idol, profanes the reputation of God’s kodesh.1
A priest is kadosh because he is formally dedicated to God and leads a different life from non-priests. He must serve God at the temple and instruct the people on ritual matters; and he depends on the whole community for support, owning no farmland of his own.
But what does it mean for God to be kadosh? And what does it mean for human beings who are not priests to be kedoshim?
Here are the three passages in the Hebrew Bible in which God orders people to be kedoshim because God is kadosh:
Holiness as ritual purity
The first two times God declares that the Israelites shall be kedoshim because God is kadosh happen in the Torah portion Shemini, earlier in the book of Leviticus. Right after a list of which animals are and are not kosher for eating, the Torah says:
Because I, God, am your god, vehitkadishtem, and you will be kedoshim, because kadosh am I; and you shall you shall not make yourselves impure through any of the tiny teeming animals swarming over the earth. Because I am God, the one who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your god; and you shall be kedoshim because kadosh am I. This is the teaching of the land-animals and the flying-animals, and for all living beings teeming in the water and for all swarming animals on the earth: to distinguish between the impure and the pure, and between the edible living things and the living things that you may not eat. (Leviticus 11:44-47)
vehitkadishtem(וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם) = you shall make yourselveskedoshim, you shall consecrate yourselves.
Animals that the Israelites are forbidden to eat cause temporary ritual impurity in any person or thing that touches their dead carcasses. The mammals and birds that are acceptable sacrificial offerings to God (cattle, sheep, goats, and two kinds of birds) are all from the kosher list.
The Torah includes many other laws about ritual observance. Transgressing one of these laws means being less obedient to God, and therefore no longer kadosh—until one has made atonement with the appropriate sacrifice.
The Torah portion Kedoshim reinforces this idea:
Vehitkadishtem, and you will be kedoshim, because I, God, am your god. And you shall observe My decrees and do them. I, God, am mekadishkhem. (Leviticus 20:7-8)
mekadishkhem(מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם) = the one who makes youkedoshim, the one who consecrates you, the one who transfers holiness to you.
For a human, in other words, being kadosh is a condition like ritual purity. People who follow all the rules of the Israelite religion are kedoshim—because God puts them in a kadosh state. Maybe for God, being kadosh means being mekadishkhem.
Holiness as moral virtue
The Torah portion Kedoshim begins with “Kedoshim you shall be, because kadosh am I” (Leviticus 19:2). Right before this divine direction, in the previous portion, Acharey Mot, is a list of forbidden sexual partners.2 Right after it is a list of 20 commandments, starting with “Everyone shall revere his mother and his father” and concluding with “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. While two or three of these commandments are about religious ritual3, the rest lay out ethical standards for human interactions.
For the last millennium, many commentators have concluded that God is asking us to become kedoshim by behaving ethically toward other people. In the 11th century C.E. three great rabbis, Rashi in France4, Maimonides in Egypt5, and Bachya ibn Pakudah in Spain6, all responded to Kedoshim by writing that human beings become kedoshim by exercising self-restraint over their passions and appetites, especially their sexual appetites. Besides avoiding the immoral deeds specifically mentioned in Acharey Mot and Kedoshim, humans must fully dedicate themselves to holiness by acting moderately and responsibly even when they are doing what is permitted.
More recently, Rabbi Adin Even Israel Steinsaltz has pointed out: “Bringing a korban [an offering to the altar] every once in a while is simple. But to fulfill all the various major and minor requirements listed in Parashat Kedoshim every day is quite another story. Not for naught does the Torah say, ‘Everyone shall revere his mother and his father’ (Lev. 19:3). Anyone who has any experience in this knows how difficult it is. It is something that we are faced with every day, and it can be especially challenging when one’s father and mother are themselves not exceptionally holy people.
“This struggle is the fundamental struggle for holiness. Parashat Kedoshim presents a long list of minor requirements, none of which is extraordinary on its own, but each one recurs day after day. The very requirement to maintain this routine without succumbing to jadedness and despair—that itself creates the highest levels of holiness.”7
For a human, in other words, being kadosh means continuously striving to act ethically in the world. Most commentators who argue for this meaning of kadosh assume that God is kadosh because God is morally perfect, and we become kedoshim to the extent that we imitate God.
Yet the anthropomorphic God portrayed in much of the Torah often seems to act immorally. The “God” in the first five books of the Torah or Bible frequently bursts into anger and kills thousands of people without discriminating between the truly evil ringleaders (if any) and those who are merely weak or imperfect, or happen to be part of a wrong-doer’s family.
However, in the book of Exodus God claims to be compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, kind, truthful, and forgiving.8 Some people claim that what looks to us like God’s bad behavior, both in the Torah and when bad things happen to good people today, is really part of God’s larger plan for ultimate justice and mercy for everyone. We humans can’t see the big picture, but this is the best of all possible worlds, and God is kodesh after all.
Holiness as exclusive possession
Sometimes the Torah calls the Israelites kadosh because they are set apart by God, and God is kadosh through the distinction of being the only god the Israelites worship.9 This concept of holiness as segregation appears near the end of this week’s Torah portion.
And you shall be kedoshim for Me, because kadosh am I, God, and I have separated you from the [other] peoples to be Mine. (Leviticus 20:26)
The exclusivity of this arrangement between God and the Israelites leads to rules that discriminate against non-Israelites. For example, in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim, Moses warns the people that when they conquer their “promised land’ in Canaan and defeat the seven tribes already living there, they must not make any treaties with these tribes; they must not intermarry with them; and they must destroy all their religious items.
For you are a kadosh people to God, your god; God, your god, chose you to belong to It as a treasured possession, out of all the peoples on the face of the earth. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 7:6)
Sifra, a collection of commentary on Leviticus that was probably compiled in the third century C.E., rephrases God’s direction at the beginning of the Torah portion Kedoshim this way: “As I, God, am set apart, so you must be set apart.” The same condition of being “set apart”—from other peoples or from other gods—defines how both the Israelite people and God are kadosh.
All of the passages in the Torah that include some version of “Kedoshim you shall be, because kadosh am I” concern activities in the physical world: obeying or decreeing ritual rules; behaving ethically; and excluding other people and other gods. None of these passages mention spiritual transcendence.
Later in the Hebrew Bible, the prophets sometimes use the word kadosh to indicate that God is an awesome and overpowering mystery.10 In the 16th century C.E., the Maharal of Prague wrote that a person or act is kadosh when it is transcendent in its essence—like God.11 And in the 18th century, Hassidic rabbis defined holiness as an intense and continuous attachment and devotion to God. This deep mental connection let God’s holiness flow into a person.12
But in the book of Leviticus, kadosh describes something in the physical world: an object, a place, a day, a priest—or an ordinary Israelite’s actions in the world, or God’s actions in the world.
What it means to say God’s actions are kadosh depends on how you define “God”—and that determines what human beings do to become kadosh.
The “God” of ritual purity
Some people think of “God” as the anthropomorphic biblical character who makes all the rules. They strive to follow whatever rules their current human leaders have selected from the Bible in a literal way, eschewing symbolism. (It would be impossible to follow all the rules in the Bible; some contradict each other, and some cannot be performed in the modern world.)
To the extent that literal-minded religious people achieve this, they consider themselves holy. But all too often this definition of God leads people to denounce those who they believe are not following their chosen biblical rules.
The “God” of moral virtue
Some people think of “God” not as an anthropomorphic being, but as a theological abstraction of perfection: omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. Others think of “God” as the force of goodness in the world. Either way, “God” is perfectly virtuous by definition, and the bible should not always be taken literally.
When people think of “God” as an ethical ideal (from the original 13 attributes to modern variations on “God is love”), and they try to become holy, they strive to act with more forethought or kindness or compassion toward others—thus imitating their God.
The “God” of exclusive possession
Some Jews consider themselves the “chosen people”, descendants of the Israelites with whom “God” has a special and exclusive relationship in the Hebrew Bible. Some Christians consider themselves the “chosen people”, with whom “God” made a new covenant in the Christian Bible.
Defining God in terms of the in-group usually results in disparaging the out-group. People imitate the “God” who singles out one “chosen people” by discriminating against all other groups of people, who they assume are inferior and/or threatening.
If you want to become kadosh, be careful how you think about God!
1 Leviticus 20:3. The Torah portion does not say whether sacrificing a child to the alien god Molekh profanes God’s reputation for separating the Israelites from people with other religions, or God’s reputation for the ethical act of banning child sacrifice.
2 Leviticus 18:1-30.
3 Seventeen of the twenty commandments in 19:3-18 are definitely about behavior toward other people, i.e. ethics. The other three are:
* Observe Shabbat. (Leviticus 19:5)
* Do not worship idols. (19:4)
* Eat a wholeness-offering (שְׁלָמִים) in the first two days. (19:5-8) This appears to be an instruction about ritual, but some commentators point out that the wholeness-offering is the only offering in which some of the roasted meat and grain is shared with guests. In order to make sure this large offering is eaten in two days, the person making the offering must invite multiple guests, so this commandment may also address the ethical virtue of generosity.
4 Rashi (Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki), commentary on Leviticus 19:2.
5 Maimonides (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon), Guide for the Perplexed.
6 Rabbi Bachya ben Yosef ibn Pakudah, Kad HaKemach.
7 Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, Talks on the Parasha, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, 2015.
8 This is a summary of the “13 attributes” God proclaims to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7. However, 34:7 ends by saying that God punishes not only wrongdoers, but their children and children’s children, to the fourth generation.
9 God is called kedosh Israel, “the holy one of Israel”, twelve times in the first book of Isaiah and fourteen times in the second book of Isaiah, as well as in 2 Kings 19:22; Jeremiah 50:29 and 51:5; Ezekiel 39:7; and Psalms 71:22, 78:41, and 89:19.
10 One example is a vision of the first Isaiah: In the year of the death of the king Uzziyahu, I beheld my lord sitting on a high and elevated throne, and [God’s] skirts were filling the palace. Serafim were standing over [God], six wings, six wings to each … And they would call, one to another, and say: “Kadosh! Kadosh! Kadosh! God of hosts! [God’s] glory fills the earth!” (Isaiah 6:1-3)
11 Rabbi Yehudah Loew ben Betzaleil, a.k.a. the Maharal of Prague, Tiferet Yisrael 37.
12 Arthur Green, Speaking Torah, Vol. 1, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 2013, pp. 292, 295.
For seven days after Moses consecrates Aaron and his sons as priests, they sit at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. The Torah portion Shemini (“Eighth”) opens on the eighth day, when the new priests are ready to make their first offerings on the altar: two different offerings for the high priest Aaron, and four different offerings for the people.1 Moses explains:
Because today God will appear to you. (Leviticus/Vayikra 9:4)
After the animals and the grain have been assembled, and the rest of the Israelites are standing in front of the altar, Moses gives further instructions, saying:
This is the thing that God commanded you must do; then the kavod of God will appear to you. (Leviticus/Vayikra 9:6)
kavod (כָּבוֹד) = weight, importance, impressiveness, magnificence; a glorious manifestation (often translated as “glory”).
The Israelites have already witnessed a long string of miracles in Egypt, culminating in the splitting of the Reed Sea. They have followed the kavod of God, in the form of a pillar of cloud and fire, from Egypt to Mount Sinai. On the day of the revelation they experienced God’s kavod as lightning and smoke on the mountain itself, along with thunder and blasts of a shofar.2
Yet once miracles stop, it is hard to keep faith. When Moses stayed on top of Mount Sinai for 40 days, and no pillar of cloud and fire reappeared near the camp, the Israelites felt abandoned. Who would lead them to a new home?
In desperation, the men asked Aaron for an idol, then worshiped the golden calf he made.3 Moses returned to them, but God’s cloud and fire did not. The Israelites were so anxious to see the kavod of God again that when Moses called for donations to make a dwelling-place for God, they donated more than enough treasure and labor.4 The dwelling-place, the new Tent of Meeting, is completed at the end of the book of Exodus/Shemot.
Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the kavod of God filled the dwelling-place. (Exodus/Shemot 40:34)
For the cloud of God was over the dwelling-place by day, and fire was in it at night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, on all their journeys. (Exodus 40:38)
Presumably the cloud is resting over the Tent of Meeting on the day the new priests make their first offerings at the altar. So why do the Israelites need another view of God’s kavod?
Perhaps God, or Moses, knows that the Israelites are still insecure. The survivors of the Golden Calf incident have committed their work and treasure to God, and they are ready to follow the new version of God-worship Moses has laid out, in which priests are intermediaries. But they need divine confirmation that Aaron and his sons really are God’s chosen priests. After all, it was Aaron who made the Golden Calf—choosing to pacify the people rather than sticking to God’s commandment against idols. Could they trust him to serve only God from now on—and keep the Israelites in God’s favor?
While all the people watch, Aaron and his sons carry out the required procedures for the six offerings at the altar.
Then Aaron raised his hands toward the people and he blessed them … (Leviticus 9:22)
The Torah doesn’t say what Aaron’s blessing is, but the Talmud assumes that it must be the blessing prescribed for priests in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar5 (and still used in Jewish liturgy today):
“May God bless you and guard you; May God illuminate Its face for you and be gracious to you; may God lift Its face to you and place peace over you.” (Numbers/Bemidbar 6:22-27)
After this blessing, one might expect the kavod of God to appear as promised. It does not.
19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, claimed that God delays the divine manifestation on purpose so as to prevent any belief that animal offerings make God’s glory appear by magic.6 The kavod appears when God wants it to appear.
Then Moses came, and Aaron, into the Tent of Meeting. Then they went out and they blessed the people … (Leviticus 9:23)
What is this second blessing? According to the Sifra, a 4th-century collection of commentary on the book of Leviticus, Moses says: “May it be God’s will to cause His Presence to rest upon the work of your hands! May God, the God of your fathers, increase your numbers a thousandfold and bless you, as He promised you!”
And the people respond with a verse that appears in Psalm 90:
May the comfort of God, our God, be upon us, and may the work of our hands be an enduring foundation for us. (Psalm 90:17) 7
Moses’ blessing is a prayer that God will indeed dwell in the new Tent of Meeting that the Israelite people made. The people’s response, in this context, is a prayer that the work they did with their own hands will result in both divine comfort and an enduring commitment to serving God.
The children of Israel are moved to commit themselves further to God when Moses and Aaron, their human leaders, come out of God’s dwelling-place and bless them. After this commitment,
… and the kavod of God appeared to all the people. Fire went out from the presence of God, and it devoured the rising-offering and the fatty animal-parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and they shouted with joy and they fell on their faces. (Leviticus 9:23-24)
At that sign of God’s acceptance, the people shout with joy—and relief.
A blessing from another person can seem like a useless exercise. After all, a human being has no power to make the blessing come true. We can only express the hope that God will make it happen.
And today, the sudden appearance of fire means an emergency, not divine acceptance.
Yet I remember when I received blessings from Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield, of blessed memory, and I felt a transfer of good will and even a sense of kavod. This feeling made a psychological difference to me, changing my attitude toward life and toward the divine.
I find I can be committed to an abstract principle, but not comforted by it. Comfort and joy come more naturally when the abstraction is connected with a human being, someone whose warm feelings are palpable. Maybe a blessing in itself can be a manifestation of God.
Bless someone today. It might make a difference.
(An earlier version of this essay was posted on March 20, 2010.)
1 First the new high priest, Aaron, makes a reparation-offering (חַטָּאת) and a rising-offering (עֺלָה) for himself. Then he makes a reparation-offering, a rising-offering, a grain offering (מִנְחָה), and a wholeness-offering (שְׁלָמִים) for the people. For an explanation of these four types of offerings, see my posts Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1 and Part 2.
2Shofar(שׁוֹפָר) = a ram’s horn modified for blowing as a wind instrument.
5 The Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 38a, assuming that Aaron’s first blessing of the people in Leviticus 9:22 is the same as the blessing God commands all priests to give in Numbers 6:22-23, argues that therefore the “priestly blessing” in Numbers 6:24-26 must be pronounced with the hands raised. Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) and the majority of medieval commentators agreed that Aaron spoke the “priestly blessing”.
6 Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash, Sefer Vayikra Part 1, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002, p. 289-290.
7Sifra, quoted by W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, 1981, p. 804.
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47) and the haftarah is 2 Samuel 6:1-7:17.
Being touched by God is a dangerous thing.
Uzza, in this week’s haftarah, walks next to the cart carrying the ark of the covenant during King David’s first attempt to move it to Jerusalem.
And David was angry that God had broken through, [making] a breach in Uzza. (2 Samuel 6:8)
The bible does not say whether David is angry at Uzza or at God, but he is certainly upset that he has to abort his carefully-planned procession to bring the ark to his new capital, Jerusalem. For one thing, David is still consolidating his position as Israel’s second king.
He began his career as King Saul’s loyal lieutenant, a charismatic hero in Saul’s war against the Philistines. After Saul turned against David and repeatedly tried to kill him, David fled and found refuge in Philistine territory. After Saul died, David returned and was acclaimed king of Judah, the southern part of Saul’s former kingdom, but one of Saul’s sons became king of the northern territory. Gradually David conquered that land as well, then captured the foreign stronghold of Jerusalem and made it his new capital. But not all the people of Israel supported King David. Some still viewed him as the charismatic war hero who used to lead Saul’s troops; others resented him for opposing King Saul’s son.
So King David decides to bring the ark of the covenant, the people’s most important religious object, into Jerusalem. That way his new administrative center will also be his subjects’ primary center of worship. But after God breaks through and kills Uzza, David asks: How can it come to me, the ark of God? (2 Samuel 6:9)
David is also angry and afraid because he deliberately set up the transportation of the ark as an occasion of religious rejoicing.
And David and the whole house of Israel were laughing and playing before God, with every woodwind of cypress, and with lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. (2 Samuel 6:5)
At that time, there were companies of “prophets” among the Israelites who entered altered states in order to experience God. Their usual method, according to the two books of Samuel, included playing music and encouraging ecstatic dancing and speaking in tongues.
For example, after the prophet Samuel anoints Saul as the first king of Israel, he tells him:
… as you are coming into the town you shall encounter a company of neviyim coming down from the high shrine, preceded by lute and tambourine and flute and lyre, and they shall be mitnabim. (1 Samuel 10:5)
neviyim (נְבִיאִִים) = prophets. (From the root verb niba(נבּא) = raved; conveyed the word of God. The Hebrew Bible uses the word neviyim (singular navi(נָבִיא) for both those who go into an altered state in order to experience God, and those who hear God and serve as God’s interpreters. (See my post Haftarah for Ki Tissa—1 Kings: Ecstatic versus Rational Prophets.)
mitnabim (מִתְנַבְּאִים) = speaking in an altered state (including glossolalia), often with ecstatic movement. (Also from the root niba.)
Then the ruach of God will overpower you, vehitnabitawith them, and you shall be transformed into another man. (1 Samuel 10:6)
ruach (רוּחַ) = wind, spirit, overpowering mood.
vehitnabita (וְהִתְנַבִּיתָ) = and you shall babble in an altered state, move in ecstasy.
A ruach of God does overpower Saul, but it does not transform him into a better man. It merely makes a breach without killing him, so a ruach can overpower him again and again. Most often Saul is seized with angry jealousy and tries to kill David.
Maybe Saul’s original personality simply could not be transformed so that his altered states were joyful, like those of the neviyim.
David, however, enters the narrative as a charismatic, brave, and clever young man who sizes things up and plans ahead. When things go wrong, he optimistically bounces back with a new scheme.
Although David is a musician, he does not act like the neviyim until it fits his plan to bring the ark to his new capital. And after his first attempt fails because of the death of Uzza, David waits three months and then tries again.
Then David went and he brought up the ark of God from the house of Oveid-Edom to the City of David with rejoicing. …And David was whirling with all his might before God; and David had belted on a linen tunic. (2 Samuel 6:12, 6:14)
King David’s tunic is an eifod (אֵפוֹד), two rectangles of material fastened together at the shoulders and belted at the waist. Elsewhere in the Bible an eifod is a ritual garment worn by the high priest over his robe and underpants. David is planning to take the role of high priest as well as king. But on this occasion, he does not wear anything under his tunic.
David and all the household of Israel were bringing up the ark of God with shouts and with the sound of the ram’s horn. And the ark of God entered the City of David. And Mikhal, daughter of Saul, looked down from the window, and she saw the king, David, leaping and whirling before God, and she scorned him in her heart. (2 Samuel 6:16)
Mikhal is not only Saul’s daughter, but also one of David’s wives—arguably his most important wife at the time, since David’s marriage to her helps to legitimize his claim to Saul’s kingdom. She notices that while David is ecstatic leaping and whirling, the front piece of his tunic flaps around below the belt—revealing his lack of underpants.
Once the ark is ensconced in a tent in Jerusalem, King David makes animal offerings and blesses the people in the name of God, like a high priest. Then he hands out bread and cakes to everyone before going to his palace to bless his own household. Mikhal intercepts him at the door.
And Mikhal, daughter of Saul, went out to meet David and she said: How he was honored today, the king of Israel—who exposed himself today to the eyes of the slave-women of his servants as one of the worthless exposes himself! (2 Samuel 6:20)
And David said to Mikhal: Before God—who chose me instead of your father and instead of any of his household, to appoint me sovereign over the people of God, over Israel—before God I will laugh and play; and I will be dishonored even more than this, and I will be debased in my own eyes! But with the slave-women of whom you speak, with them I will be honored. (2 Samuel 6:21)
King David is claiming that he knows proper behavior according to members of the ruling class—and that nevertheless, he will behave in the way that wins the love of the common people. There are times when a king is better off dancing with a flapping tunic—as long as the dancing proves the king has been touched by God.
Religious ecstasy did not help Israel’s first king. King Saul lived in the moment, and if the spirit of God touched him, he acted, for good or for bad.
King David, on the other hand, always planned ahead. He whirled ecstatically in front of the ark because a joyful and over-the-top religious procession was part of his plan for uniting his people.
Sometimes it is good to get emotional over God. I have led Shabbat services with a sequence of songs designed to inspire and elevate people into joy, and even dancing.
But there must be a safe container for ecstasy. Samuel did not realize that Saul was not a safe container for the spirit of God. And Mikhal did not realize that David had created a procession that would be a safe container for religious ecstasy.
May we all be blessed with intuitive knowledge of when it is good to let go, and when it is better to restrain oneself.
In this week’s portion, Shemini (Eighth), Aaron and his four sons complete the eighth day of their ordination as priests by presenting an animal offering at the new altar. God sends forth a miraculous fire that consumes everything on the altar, and all the people shout with joy and bow down to the ground.
Then Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring unauthorized incense into the Tent of Meeting, and God sends forth a miraculous fire that consumes them. (See my post Shemini: Fire Meets Fire.)
Moses gives instructions regarding removing the bodies and mourning. Then God tells Aaron:
Wine or sheikhar do not drink, you or your sons with you, when you come into the Tent of Meeting, and you will not die—a decree forever for your generations—and to distinguish between the holy and the ordinary, and between the ritually-impure and the ritually -pure; and to teach the Children of Israel all the decrees that God, your god, has spoken through Moses. (Leviticus/Vayikra 10:9-11)
sheikhar (שֵׁכָר) = strong drink. (From the root verb shakhar, שׁכר = was drunk, became intoxicated.)
Sheikhar is not liquor or fortified wine, since distilling was not inventing until the fourth century B.C.E. The alcoholic drinks available to the ancient Israelites were wine from grapes, wine from other fruits, and beer from grain. Judging by other Biblical passages containing the word sheikhar, the word might mean any of these fermented drinks, if they happened to be especially strong.
The Torah distinguishes between new wine, chemer (חֶמֶר), and old wine, called shemer (שֶׁמֶר) or sheikhar. New wine has only progressed through the first stage of fermentation; old wine has fermented for at least 40 days (according to the Talmud, Sanhedrin 70a) and has more alcoholic content. (The Torah also refers to both new and old wine as yayin (יַיִן), which simply means “wine”.)
Does God give Aaron the injunction above shortly after Nadav and Avihu’s fatal error because they were drunk when they brought the unauthorized incense? The commentary is divided. Either way, God states the reason why priests must not drink on duty: alcohol decreases reasoning and discernment, and therefore would interfere with several of the priests’ duties: judging whether something is holy, judging whether something or someone is ritually pure, and teaching the laws correctly.
However, the Torah does not banish wine altogether from the sanctuary or temple. Priests are required to give offerings of wine to God, poured out as libations on the altar. The book of Numbers/Bemidbar even specifies strong wine for God:
And you shall say to them: This is the fire-offering you shall bring close to Hashem: male yearling lambs, unblemished, a pair for the day, as a perpetual rising-offering. The one male lamb you shall do in the morning, and the second male lamb you shall do in the evening. … And he shall pour out a fourth of a hin for the one male lamb, on the holy place, to provide a libation, a drink-offering of sheikhar for Hashem. (Numbers/Bemidbar 28:3-4, 7)
During the time of the second temple in Jerusalem, the wine libation was poured near the southwest corner of the altar. The wine flowed down through holes into drainpipes. (See my post Emor: Libations.) The wine of a libation had to be be entirely poured out; Jews did not follow the Greek practice of pouring a libation and then drinking the rest of the wine.
On the other hand, it was acceptable for non-priestly worshipers to drink their own wine in front of the sanctuary.
You must definitely tithe all the yield of your planting, what comes out of the field, year by year. And you shall eat in front of God, your god … so that you will learn to be in awe of God, your god, all the time. And if the road is too long for you … Then you shall give silver, and you shall bundle up the silver in your hand, and you shall go to the place that God, your god, will choose. And you may give the silver for what your nefesh craves: cattle, or sheep, or wine, or sheikhar, or anything that your nefesh asks you for. And you shall eat it there in front of God, your god, and you shall rejoice, you and your household. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 14:22-26)
nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = appetite; the soul that animates the body.
Here the Torah seems to approve of imbibing (as well as feasting) as an aid to feeling both joy and awe when serving God. Yet in the first book of Samuel/Shmuel, the high priest Eli criticizes Hannah for coming to the temple when she is, apparently, drunk.
And Channah, she was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard. And Eli considered her leshikorah. And Eli said to her: How long will you go on making yourself drunk? Remove your wine from over yourself!
But Channah replied, and she said: No, my lord, I am a woman of heavy spirit, and I have not drunk wine nor sheikhar, but I have poured out my nefesh before God. (1 Samuel 13-15)
leshikorah (לְשִׁכּוֹרָה) = to be drunk.
By pouring out her soul before God, Channah is, in effect, making her own libation offering. And she is dedicating something stronger than old wine.
Perhaps the priests must avoid drinking at the sanctuary not only to keep their minds sharp, but also to serve God with appropriate levels of joy and awe, avoiding emotional excess. Their libation offerings could be interpreted as pouring out their own emotionality, emptying themselves in order to become holy vessels for their work.
When I lead prayer services, the people in front of me seem to find more comfort, or insight, or elevation, when I manage to step away from the emotions that I walked in with, but retain my rational alertness. At those times, I find myself empty and available for inspiration, yet also able to notice when I need to change the volume or tempo of a song, to skip something I had planned, to say something different, to invite comment or to move back into song.
If only I could do that every time!
Next time, I will imagine pouring out all my sheikhar, my old, strong wine, in a libation to God before the service begins. Then maybe I can be both clear and clear-headed in the sanctuary that it is my duty to help create.
The death of someone close to you, even after a long illness, is hard to accept. A sudden death is like an earthquake. But what if the sudden death came neither from an accident nor from a gun, but from a blast of divine fire?
That is how Aaron’s two older sons die in this week’s Torah portion, Shemini (“Eighth”). Aaron and his four sons undergo an eight-day sanctification and ordination, along with the altar of the newly-assembled mikdash (“holy place”). At the conclusion of the ritual, a miraculous fire rushes out from the Holy of Holies and consumes everything on the altar. All the Israelites shout with joy and prostrate themselves. The five newly-ordained priests no doubt rejoice as well in this manifestation of God’s glory.
Then Aaron’s older sons, Nadav and Avihu, grab their incense-burners and bring “alien fire” to God. (See my post Shemini: Prayer and Glory.) Another miraculous fire rushes out from the Holy of Holies and consumes them. But their bodies remain sufficiently intact for their cousins to drag them out of the sanctuary by their tunics.
Then Moses said to Aaron: It is what God spoke, saying: “Bikrovai, I will be proven holy; and in the presence of all the people I will be glorified. And Aaron, vayidom. (Leviticus/Vayikra 10:3)
bikrovai (בִּקְרֺבַי) = through those near me.
vayidom(וַיִּדֺּם) = he was silent; he was motionless; he waited. (Another verb from the same root, דּמם , means “was silenced”.)
Moses seems to be quoting God, but when did God say that?
According to Rashi1 Moses elaborated: “Aaron, my brother, I knew that this House would be sanctified by those who are cherished by God, and I thought it would be either through me or through you. Now I see that these [Nadav and Avihu] are greater than I and you.”
In this reading, Moses is assuring his brother Aaron that God did not kill his sons because they were unworthy; God killed his sons because they were so wonderful. This reminds me of when I was in first grade, and a Catholic friend of mine solemnly told me that the happiest day of her life would be when her husband died—because she knew he would go straight to heaven, and she knew she would be unselfish enough to rejoice. (I thought my friend was crazy.)
But the religion in the Torah has no concept of an afterlife, except for vague references to an underworld called Sheol where nothing happens. Whatever Moses intends, he is not saying that God has suddenly rewarded Nadav and Avihu for their virtue by transporting their souls to heaven.
Most Jewish commentators agree that God is punishing rather than rewarding Nadav and Avihu. After all, the two men brought “alien fire” into the new Tent of Meeting without authorization, so they were guilty of at least careless over-enthusiasm, and at worst egotism and disdain for their elders. But did they deserve death for their mistake?
Naphtali Herz Weisel2 wrote that while humans tend to be lenient with the people they love the most, God does the opposite. God overlooks a minor infraction committed by an ordinary person, but severely punishes even a tiny error by a leader who was divinely chosen.
The implication is that God’s killing of Nadav and Avihu for making a small mistake proves that the two new priests were extraordinarily holy and close to God. This is how Moses tries to console Aaron. And Aaron responds to this attempt with silence.
Some commentary says that Aaron was silent because he accepted Moses’ explanation. Indeed, I can imagine that if you were afraid your children had died committing a crime, it might be some comfort to know that they had only made a minor error in judgment.
Other commentary brings in other possible meanings of vayidom. Isaac Abravanel3 wrote that Aaron was not consoled; he wailed at first, then became silent and motionless as his heart turned to stone. Modern commentators add that Aaron was in shock; we might say his soul was silenced.
And Aaron’s silence continues. In the Torah, the acceptable response to the death of a family member is to wail, tear your clothing, and untie your hair. You are supposed to show your grief in public. But before Aaron, or his two younger sons, Elazar and Itamar, can begin to dishevel themselves, Moses stops them.
Moses said to Aaron, and to his sons Elazar and Itamar: Don’t let the hair hang loose on your heads, and don’t tear your clothes; then you will not die, nor will God become furious at the whole community. But your brothers, all the house of Israel, will bewail the burning that God burned. And do not go out of the opening of the Tent of Meeting, lest you die, for the oil of anointing of God is upon you. And they did as Moses spoke. (Leviticus 10:5-7)
Everyone in the whole camp of Israel is expected to mourn for Nadav and Avihu—except for the three surviving priests, the three men closest to them. Later in the book of Leviticus, in chapter 21, a high priest is forbidden to grow his hair long, tear his garments, or come near any dead body. The other priests may engage in mourning practices, but only for their closest family members (including sons and brothers), and only when they are not on duty. This exception does not apply, however, to the newly anointed Elazar and Itamar. Since they are not allowed to leave the opening of the Tent of Meeting, they are like high priests, unable to go off-duty.
Other ancient religions in the region had priests who specialized in serving and summoning the dead. But for the priests of the Israelites, any contact with the dead was a contamination, making them unable to do their jobs until they had been purified. True, their jobs included a great deal of contact with dead animals, not to mention diagnoses of skin diseases. Nevertheless, it was important for priests to inspire the people to become “holy”, to worship God with joy as well as devotion. In order to do this, priests were expected to look joyful and devout as they served God, no matter what they felt inside.
20th-century rabbi Elie Munk went further, and wrote that the priests had to maintain a joyful state of mind in order to give blessings to the people. They could not let themselves mourn on either the outside or the inside.4
Today we would call that going into denial. Yet it remains true that there are times when we must all rise to the occasion, pretending to be more serene than we feel inside, in order to do some important job—maybe to take care of someone else in need. The danger lies in always being “on”—never leaving the opening of the tent of meeting.
May we all be blessed with both the strength to rise above our feelings at times, in order to serve others, and the strength to remove ourselves from service at times, in order to do the mourning we need for our own souls.
11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitchaki.
18th-century rabbi Naphtali Herz Weisel, translated in Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Vayikra, Vol. 1, World Zionist Organization, Jerusalem,1993, p. 131.
15th century philosopher Isaac ben Judah Abravanel.
Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Vayikra, Mesorah Publications, Brooklyn, N.Y.,1992, p. 89-90.