Parashat Shemini
April 10, 2021 | 28 Nissan 5781
Torah: Leviticus 9:1-11:47; Triennial 10:12-11:32
Haftorah: II Samuel 6:1-7:17
In this week's Torah Sparks, you'll find a D'var Torah on Parashat Shemini by Ilana Kurshan called "We Didn't Start the Fire". Vered Hollander-Goldfarb poses questions titled "When Fires Clash". And Bex Stern Rosenblatt writes about "Michal's Choices" in the Haftorah.
We Didn't Start the Fire
Ilana Kurshan

The Torah offers a rather cryptic explanation for the death of Aaron’s sons, stating only that they offered a “strange fire which God had not commanded” (Leviticus 10:1). The incident takes place immediately after the Mishkan has at last been inaugurated: Moshe and Aaron have just blessed the people outside the Tent of Meeting, the presence of the Lord has appeared, and the people “saw, shouted, and fell on their faces” (9:24). In the very next verse, this dramatic climax is followed by tragedy, and the sages rush in to explain what might have gone wrong: Were Nadav and Avihu drunk? Were they wearing the wrong clothes? Did they enter the Holy of Holies? According to one Talmudic explanation, the death of Nadav and Avihu—and indeed the fate of all of Aaron’s sons—offers us a surprising lesson about the value of originality and the reverence we accord to the wisdom of our teachers.

The Talmudic sages consider the death of Aaron’s sons in the context of a discussion about according proper respect to one’s teacher. They teach that one must never rule on halakhic matters in the presence of one’s own teacher, but must instead defer to that teacher’s authority. The sin of Nadav and Avihu, they argue, is that they issued a halakhic ruling in Moshe’s presence. The rabbis explain that Nadav and Avihu followed their own understanding of God’s words to Moshe that “the sons of Aaron shall put fire on the altar” (1:7) and thus offered their own fire, rather than waiting for the fire to come forth from God, as Moshe had done. They reasoned, “Even though the fire will come down from heaven, it is a mitzvah to bring ordinary fire” (Eruvin 63a). In so doing, they came up with their own halakhic ruling rather than following their teacher’s example.

The Talmudic sages offer various examples of biblical and rabbinic figures who failed to take this injunction seriously and were punished harshly. Joshua, they argue, was fated to remain childless because he was so brazen as to tell Moshe to destroy Eldad and Meidad, who presumed to have prophetic powers; Joshua should instead have waited for Moshe to deal with them as he saw fit. The Talmud also cites the story of one of Rabbi Eliezer’s students, who ruled in his teacher’s presence. Upon hearing of the matter, Rabbi Eliezer confides in his wife Ima Shalom, “I will be surprised if this one is still alive at the end of the year.” Within a few months, the student dies, and Ima Shalom wonders how her husband knew the fate that was in store for him: “Are you a prophet?” she asks him. He responds, “I am not a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I have received the following tradition: Anyone who issues a halakhic ruling in his teacher’s presence is deserving of death.”

Why is it so dangerous to rule in the presence of one’s teacher? One answer is to be found in the incident that follows immediately on the heels of Nadav and Avihu’s death, when two of Aaron’s other sons, Elazar and Itamar, are rebuked by Moshe for burning the goat they have offered as a sin offering: “Why did you not eat the sin offering in the sacred area?” (10:17). Moshe insists they should have eaten the sacrifice rather than burn it, but the sons do not say anything in their own defense. Rashi (on 10:19), drawing from the midrash (Sifrei Zuta), explains that Elazar and Itamar were with their father at the time, and they reasoned, “It is inappropriate that while our father is sitting in front of us, we should answer in his presence, and it is also inappropriate that a disciple should refute his master.” Chastened perhaps by the deaths of their brothers, they have learned not to try to offer their own interpretations to justify their actions. They keep silent, and it is Aaron who explains to Moshe that it would not have been right to eat the sacrifices while in a state of mourning for Nadav and Avihu. Moshe approves—“it was good in his eyes” (10:20)—and this time no fires break forth.

The rabbinic insistence on keeping silent in the presence of one’s teacher may seem foreign to our modern sensibilities. Our educational system rewards students for their independent thinking; a student who can teach something to the teacher is generally praised, not censured. And our society at large places a premium on originality and innovation. We are not supposed to lower our heads and accept whatever we hear from those who came before us, but to question, challenge, and come up with our own way of making sense of the world around us. But in the Talmud we encounter figures such as Rabbi Eliezer—the same rabbi who predicted his student would die—who prided himself in never saying anything he had not heard from his own teachers. The rabbis praise those who can remember their teacher’s words accurately and quote their teachers by name. They argue that it is better to be a Sinai—a block of stored knowledge—than an Oker Harim—an overturner of mountains (Horayot 14a). Better to be a repository for the wisdom that came before you than to come up with your own groundbreaking insights. Better to keep silent like Elazar and Itamar than to offer your own interpretation of the verse like Nadav and Avihu.

While we will never stop valuing originality and new insight, perhaps there is something to be learned from the rabbinic veneration of tradition. None of us can be expected to be extremists like Rabbi Eliezer and treat all new ideas with scorn. But in an age where so many of us rush to light our own fires, there is something to be said for stepping back for a moment to wait for the heavenly fire of received tradition. The American poet James Merrill once cautioned that “writing poetry without reading it is a very dangerous thing.” When we write, we are joining a literary tradition that we have inherited. No matter how original our work may be, it will be received as part of a context that is greater than ourselves. May we learn from the lesson of all of Aaron’s sons to listen to those who came before us, thereby nuancing and enriching our own contributions by reference—and deference—to the traditions of which we are a part.
When Fires Clash
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb

Text: Vayikra 9:24-10:2

(9:24)And a fire came forth from before The LORD and consumed on the altar the burnt offering and the fat parts; and all the people saw and shouted with joy and fell on their faces. (10:1)And the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, took each his fire pan and put fire in it and placed on it incense (Ketoret) and brought it forth before The LORD; an alien fire which he/He had not commanded them. (2)And Fire came from before The LORD and consumed them, and they died before The LORD.

  • Why do you think that Nadav and Avihu decided to bring Ketoret (incense) at this point?
  • Why were Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, killed by fire?
  • Who did not command the sons of Aaron (10:1)? What relationship does each reading impact?
Commentary: Rashbam Vayikra 10:1-2

And the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, took... Before the fire came forth from before The LORD (9:24), they had already each taken his fire pan to offer incense inside [the Tabernacle] on the golden altar, for the morning’s incense always precedes the [burning of the sacrificial] limbs. Into those pans they put an alien fire, which he, Moses, had not commanded them [to offer] on this day… because they were expecting the descent of a divine fire. [by which] God’s Name would be sanctified when everyone would find out that a fire had descended from heaven.
Fire came forth from before The LORD - to burn the incense inside [the Tabernacle] first. There it struck down Aaron’s sons and they died. Then the fire went out from there and came to the outer altar where it consumed the burnt offering.
  • What was Nadav and Avihu’s motive? What was wrong with what they did?
  • What is the relationship between the fire in 9:24 and 10:2? How would you define the death of Aaron’s sons?
Commantary: Shadal Vayikra 10:1

Their intention was not to bring the Ketoret of the morning… for if so, why use two fire pans? Rather, they brought Ketoret that the LORD did not command, and their sin was because of vanity. For it was not sufficient for them to be servants to their father… but wanted to show that they too are Kohanim of the LORD like Aaron; and since Moshe had not commanded them to do any personal service, they chose for themselves a precious service and they sacrificed before The LORD an alien fire.

  • According to Shadal, what was Nadav and Avihu’s motive? How does his interpretation differ from Rashbam? Can you think of other life situations motivated by similar considerations?
Michal's Choices
Bex Stern Rosenblatt

We’re told Michal’s story in bits and pieces. We meet her as the second daughter of King Saul and come to know her as the first of the wives of King David. She is forever bound by both identities, stuck between the kingship of Saul and the kingship of his rival and replacement David. From the beginning though, Michal is the one who chooses on which identity to act, which loyalty to follow.

Michal appears to be the hero in her first two stories. In 1 Samuel 18 and 19, Michal drives the action, emerging from her role as daughter of Saul to choose David and to protect him. In 1 Samuel 18, Saul plots to have David killed by sending him to fight. He offers his daughter, Merav, as a reward. David does go into battle and does well. Yet he is not offered Merav. Instead, we are told, Michal loves David. It stands out as the only time in the Tanakh that a woman is said to love a man. And this choosing of Michal is enough. Saul modifies the terms for David. Now, rather than the amorphous promise of marriage in exchange for an unknown number of battles, David is promised Michal if he brings Saul 100 Philistine foreskins. Of course, Saul is still hoping that David will be killed in the endeavor and he will not have to marry his daughter off. But, through Michal’s choice, she changes the narrative. David brings Saul 200 foreskins and marries her.

Michal’s choice is even more striking in 1 Samuel 19. By this point, Saul has abandoned all pretense and is trying to kill David. Michal, knowing this, sneaks David out the window and pretends to Saul’s servants who come to seek David that David is ill in bed. When the servants come up to check the bed and discover that Michal was lying, Michal goes even further in her deception. She chooses to tell her father that David forced her to do it.

Michal’s choice here is tragic. She chooses to save her husband, forsaking her father. And yet David does not choose her back. He flees Saul and abandons Michal. And Saul takes advantage of this situation, acting as if David is dead and marrying Michal off to someone else, to Paltiel. Eventually, David will call her back to him, after he has already married a number of other wives. Saul is dead and David is mopping up all the remaining potential heirs of Saul, securing his right to the throne. In 2 Samuel 3, David demands the return of Michal from her new husband. She comes, with Paltiel following behind her, weeping. In this moment, Michal chooses to present a blank face, showing no signs of emotion or weakness, as her first husband brings her back in a power move and her second husband weeps over her departure.

Michal’s last narrative appearance is in this week’s haftarah portion, 2 Samuel 6. With great joy, David returns the ark of the covenant to its rightful place in Jerusalem. He runs before it, dancing wildly and jubilantly. We watch the scene with Michal, from a window. Upon seeing David acting like this, Michal, the only woman we’re told loves in the Tanakh, despises David in her heart. She turns to him and accuses him of debasing himself, exposing his nakedness before the female servants of his servants. In her words, David hears her choice, her rejection of servants become king like him, her preference for decorum over God. He reminds her that God chose him over the house of her father and that he will do as he pleases. The story ends by telling us that Michal had no children till the day of her death.

Michal’s story is tragic. Her position in life forces her to play certain roles, to be subject to certain forces. Her choices are always between two bad options and she might not always choose correctly. Nonetheless, Michal retains her dignity and her selfhood. She exercises her right to make choices. May we all be so brave.
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