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Parashat Shemini – Echoes of Tragedy

  • Rav Michael Hattin
Parashat Shemini begins with the completion of the Mishkan’s dedication.  After the building elements had been carefully assembled according to exacting specifications, after all of the precious vessels had been constructed and placed in their correct locations, after Aharon and his sons had been enrobed in their regal and highly ornamented vestments, a seven-day period of inauguration followed.  During each of those seven days, Aharon and his sons ministered before God, presenting sacrifices consisting of a sin offering, a burnt offering and a peace offering, as well as special loaves associated with the latter.  The fragrant anointing oil and the sacrificial blood both figured prominently in the service, with the vessels as well as Aharon and his sons receiving ritual sprinklings of both.
            On the eighth day, Moshe summoned Aharon and his sons, as well as the elders of Israel.  He said to Aharon: take for yourself an unblemished calf as a sin offering as well as an unblemished ram as a burnt offering, and bring them before God.  Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: take a goat as a sin offering as well as an unblemished calf and unblemished year-old lamb as burnt offerings.  Also, an ox and a ram as peace offerings, to sacrifice before God, with a grain offering mixed with oil, for today God will appear to you! (VaYikra 9:1-4).
Aharon and his sons dutifully do so, and soon the last sacrifices of the service are completed.  Thus it is that the lengthy and arduous process that had humbly began some six months earlier with the call to the people to contribute precious materials for the construction of God’s house, is now concluded joyously and without mishap.  Fittingly, no doubt filled with a mixture of both pride as well as relief, Moshe and Aharon bless the entire congregation and God’s consuming fire then descends:
            A fire went forth from before God, it consumed the sacrifices upon the altar – the burnt offering and the fats – and when the people saw it they cried out, and prostrated themselves upon their faces…(9:24).
But the joy of the people and their leaders on a job well done, their euphoria at the awesome sight of the Divine glory filling the silent spaces and infusing them with His presence, is terribly short lived.  Scarcely had the fire descended from on high to consume the last of the inaugural sacrifices when tragedy strikes, unexpectedly and ironically ushered in by the over enthusiasm of the ministering priests themselves:
            The two sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, each took their firepans, placed within them fire and upon that incense, and they offered before God an unfamiliar fire that He had not commanded them (to present).  A fire went forth from before God and consumed them, and they died before God (VaYikra 10:1-2).
In the past, we have considered the transgression of the sons of Aharon from the point of view of the Rabbinic sources, noting along the way that the ancient Rabbis, as well as their medieval counterparts who much later reconsidered the narratives, achieved no unanimity on the matter.  Some of them assumed the worst, connecting the indiscretion of Nadav and Avihu with the Torah’s prohibition on intoxicating drink that immediately follows the section (9:8-11), while others saw in their act a brazen attempt to undermine the authority of Moshe.  Some related their fall to the specifics of the fiery incense offering that often carries with it special perils, while others perceived the downfall of Nadav and Avihu to be a function of their unbridled but misplaced spiritual spontaneity that refused to recognize Divinely enjoined constraints on the service of God. 
This week, we will consider the matter through the lens of the Tanakh itself, by comparing and contrasting our section with another haunting account preserved in the second book of Samuel.  The linkage between the two passages is already very ancient, for the designated haftara reading for our Parasha is none other than the story of the Ark’s relocation to the city of David recounted in Second Samuel, Chapter 6:1-19.  Readers may want to peruse that section now in order to familiarize themselves with the narrative.  The broader context of the account properly begins with the first chapter of the second book  of Samuel.  It is of course the story of David’s ascent to the throne of Israel after the untimely demise of Shaul, Israel’s first king and David’s nemesis, on the slopes of Mount Gilbo’a in battle against the Philistines (end of first book of Samuel). 
David’s rise to majesty is by no means straightforward, with the lengthy transition marked by serious political instability and lethal intertribal conflict.  In the end, David prevails, and in one of his first acts as king over all of Israel, he conquers Jerusalem and its citadel from the hands of its Canaanite/Yevusite defenders and designates it as his new capital (Second Shemuel Chapter 5).  In so doing, he stresses the need for national reconciliation, for the ancient city straddles the borders of Yehuda to the south and Binyamin to the north, the tribal representatives of the rival houses of Leah and Rachel respectively.  At the same time, David returns to an ancient site of Israelite pilgrimage and encounter with God, for at Jerusalem God had called upon Avraham to sacrifice his beloved son Yitzchak, and the aged father was prepared to hearken to His word (see Breisheet 22:2, 14; Divrei HaYamim 2:3:1). 
In a similar vein, one might say that the background to our narrative, the account of the people of Israel contributing their precious materials for the undertaking of the Mishkan, is also an early story of the attempt to overcome tribal divisions by engaging in an enterprise that is decidedly national in character.  At the same time, the objective of the undertaking is the construction of a shrine that will serve as the locus for the encounter with God, much as David’s choice of Jerusalem will ultimately play itself out with the building of the Temple on one of its prominent peaks by his son Shelomo.
Having conquered Jerusalem and designated it as his capital, David now relocates the Ark of the Covenant from Kiryat Ye’arim in the Judean foothills, where it had uneventfully resided since the destruction of the Mishkan at Shilo by the Philistines quite some time before (see the opening chapters of the first book of Samuel).  The similarities between the general contours of both stories is thus even more pronounced, for the description of the dedication of the Mishkan that is the subject of our Parasha may also be primarily regarded as the process of providing shelter for the Ark of the Covenant that is its most precious vessel, for the golden keruvs that protectively and provocatively hover upon it serve as the locus for God’s communication to Moshe and to the people of Israel (see Shemot 25:22). 
And just as our story of the Mishkan’s joyous inauguration is unexpectedly marked by the tragic death of Aharon’s two sons, so too David’s festive relocation of the Ark is punctuated by disaster:
            David gathered the choicest men in Israel, thirty thousand of them.  David and all of the people that were with him from Ba’ale Yehuda arose in order to bring up from there the Ark of the Lord, upon which was called the name of the God of Israel who dwells upon the cherubs.  They caused the Ark of the Lord to ride upon a new wagon and they brought it up from the house of Avinadav upon the hill.  ‘Uza and Achyo the sons of Avinadav were driving the new wagon.  They brought it up from the house of Avinadav that was upon the hill with the Ark of the Lord, and Achyo walked before the Ark.  David and all of the people of Israel were playing before God with all manner of instruments of cypress wood, with lyres and harps, with drums, with tambourines and with cymbals. 
            They reached the threshing floor of Nachon, and ‘Uza reached out for the Ark of the Lord and grasped it, for the oxen had slipped.  God’s wrath was kindled against ‘Uza and the Lord smote him there for the indiscretion, so that he died there with the Ark of the Lord.  David was upset about God’s outburst (“PaRaTZ”) against ‘Uza, and he therefore called that place Peretz ‘Uza, until this very day.  David feared God on that day, and he said “how shall the Ark of God come to me?”  David did not want to relocate the Ark of God to him to the city of David, and David instead diverted it to the house of ‘Oved Edom the Gittite.  The Ark of God remained at the house of ‘Oved Edom the Gittite for three months, and God blessed ‘Oved Edom and his entire household.  It was told to David that God had blessed ‘Oved Edom and all that was his because of the Ark of the Lord, so that David went and joyously brought up the Ark of the Lord from the house of ‘Oved Edom to the city of David…(Shemuel II, 6:1-12).
Thus far, we have a series of striking similarities.  In both narratives, the broader context concerns the challenge of forging disparate tribes into a unified nation.  In both stories, the centrality of the Ark of the Covenant and its relocation is highlighted, and in both accounts a national celebration of dedication is unexpectedly clouded by a catastrophe that is magnified in the eyes of the reader by its seeming inexplicability.  Drawing more specific parallels, we note that both tragedies revolve around brothers (Nadav and Avihu vs. ‘Uza and Achyo) who are integral to the process of the inauguration and who perish while the eyes of all of Israel are upon them.  Their respective fathers, namely Aharon in our Parasha and Avinadav in the book of Shemuel, remain outside of the relevant narrative, peripheral to the account of their children’s untimely death and detached or mute in their response.
It is of course this same Avinadav the father of ‘Uza and Achyo who provides us with the most tantalizing literary link between the accounts, for it is patently obvious that his name is a simple composite of NADAV and AVIhu the sons of Aharon!  The author of the account in Second Shemuel, by providing us with what otherwise would have been an extraneous piece of genealogy, thus alerts us to the intrinsic connection between the two narratives and invites us to explore the implications further.  We may surmise that this is also the reason why the narrative elsewhere relates, in the story of the Ark’s arrival at Kiryat Ye’arim preserved in  the first book of Shemuel chapter 7:1, that it was “El’azar the son of Avinadav” who was initially designated to guard the Ark.  This name El’azar is of course synonymous with Aharon’s third son!
At this point of our investigation a general comment is in order.  We have noted on more than one occasion during the course of our studies the overlapping nature of Biblical narratives, such that one passage in one book is sometimes closely echoed by another passage in another book that is frequently far removed from the first in terms of chronology or content.  It may be tempting to ascribe such similarities to literary conventions that are purely stylistic, as if certain events must always be described in accordance with specific predetermined standard techniques.  It is the assumption of this author, however, that such parallels are deliberate invitations for cross interpretation, as if the later text comes not only to provide us with its own particular and pertinent message, but to shed light on the earlier text as well. 
Methodologically, then, the technique of utilizing what is sometimes termed Biblical intertextuality involves at least two discrete steps.  The first of these is to note the parallels in the first place, which is often a direct function of a close literary reading.  These parallels may be syntactical (relating to grammatical structure), lexicographical (relating to specific word forms), or thematic (relating to larger ideas or messages).  But taking note of them is not enough.  We must then ponder the significance of these reverberations and seek to understand how they assist us in addressing the overarching questions that the primary text often raises but rarely answers in a direct way.
To address our specific example, the account of the death of ‘Uza is not simply another tragic tale that literarily attempts to heighten the pathos of the event by consciously evoking the death of the sons of Aharon.  It is much more.  It constitutes the earliest INTERPRETATION of the death of Aharon’s sons, providing us with a response to what otherwise would remain our Parasha’s most perplexing mystery: why is it that Nadav and Avihu perish at all?  What is the nature of their indiscretion and of the “strange fire’ that they present?  Why is God’s wrath kindled against them at just such a time, when all of Israel celebrates the dedication of the building that is at the very core of the God-man encounter?
Next time, we will continue our investigation by considering the account of ‘Uza’s death more closely.  This will necessarily involve raising some of the points of contrast to our Parasha and not only the similarities that we have noted.  We will then return to our Parasha and ascertain whether reading it anew through the lens of the account of ‘Uza’s death is able to shed light on the matter of Nadav and Avihu and their own tragic end.
Shabbat Shalom
Note: our essay on Parashat VaYakhel-Pekudei constituted the first part of an investigation into the genealogy of Bezalel the son of Uri and the grandson of Chur, who was the chief artisan of the Mishkan.  While I had hoped to complete that investigation last week, the Pesach holiday intervened.  We will therefore return to the topic of Chur during the week of Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim.