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Parashat Sh’mini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)

“Moses said, “When this thing which God has told you to carry out is done,
then the glory of God will appear to you.” (Leviticus 9:6)

Parashat Sh’mini describes the eighth day of Aaron and his sons’ ordination as Kohen Gadol (High Priest) and kohanim (priests), respectively. They then offer the very first sacrifices on the altar in the mishkan, or Tabernacle. This exultant moment turns tragic when Nadav and Avihu, two of Aaron’s sons, deviate from the script and offer, “… alien fire before God …,” and are themselves ininerated by God’s fire (Leviticus 10:1-2).

Rashi (acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the pre-eminent 11th century Jewish commentator) claims the brothers’ sin is having drunk wine before entering the mishkan. This is puzzling, because the Torah is quite explicit and says nothing about liquor. Rabbi Abraham Twirski (American chassidic rabbi, and psychiatrist specializing in substance abuse) notes humans have always sought to expand reality through mind-altering substances; after all, that’s what the snake “sells” to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:4) In Shemini, as in Breishit, the desire is to be closer to God. In each case, the consequences of that artificially amplified desire are most severe.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, (1902-1994; last “Rebbe” of the Lubavitch chasidim) claims Nadav and Avihu altered mental states were consumed completely with a desire to cleave to God and to abandon their corporeal life – something completely at odds with classic Jewish thought. Shemini’s ultimate lesson is a perfect fit for a lesson from these locked-down Covid-19 days: there’s a lot we yearn for, but Jewish spirituality directs us to focus on the manifold blessings of the mundane aspects of daily life.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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