Did everyone in ancient Israel enjoy the butcher show at the holy altar?
I don’t think so. In this week’s Torah reading, I see a story of resistance against animal sacrifice. My interpretation is not traditional, but found it using traditional methods
Parshat Shmini describes a terrible national tragedy on the opening day of the mishkan, the traveling wilderness tabernacle. The initial offerings and communal blessings go according to plan.
But two young priests, Nadav and Avihu, decide to improvise.
They prepare their fire-pans with fire and incense. They come forward and “offer in the presence of God a strange fire, about which they had not been instructed. Fire comes forth from the Presence of God and consumes them, and they die in the Presence of God” (Leviticus 10:1-2).
Why do Nadav and Avihu die? Torah does not tell us explicitly. So traditional commentators have looked for hints in nearby verses. Thus, they conclude:
Nadav and Avihu mean no harm, but get a little overly passionate about the occasion. After all, Moses eulogizes them with a compliment: they are “intimates of God” (Leviticus 10:3).
They party too heartily. Drink a few glasses of wine too many and lose focus. That’s why, after their deaths, God tells the High Priest Aaron, “Drink no wine…when you enter the tent of meeting, that you may not die” (Leviticus 10:8).
They take too much initiative, adding creatively to Moses’ instructions. After their death, God says, “Giving instructions for the rituals is in Moses’ hands!” (Leviticus 10:11).
But I have discovered a new theory. One that emerges in the light of contemporary eco-kosher consciousness.
Nadav and Avihu are protesting animal sacrifice. In solidarity with the animals, they throw themselves into the flames.
After their deaths, Moses reminds the priests to eat the meat offerings. “This is your portion of God’s offerings,” Moses says (Leviticus 10:13). But the priests still refuse to eat meat. High Priest Aaron says, “Given all that happened today, do you really think God would like us to eat this?” (Leviticus 10:19)
Moses backs down, but still wants to have the last word. So he reminds everyone: you can eat meat from animals with split hooves who chew their cud (Leviticus 11:1-3).
You know, I’m relieved to read hints of priestly discomfort with so much animal-killing. It would be odd to not to find it in Torah. The Hebrew Bible begins with appreciation of vegetarian eating: Adam and Eve are told to eat fruits, seeds, grains and greens (Genesis 1: 29-30). And towards the Bible’s end, vegetarianism is celebrated again: Daniel and his three vegetarian friends are healthier and smarter than their meat-eating colleagues (Daniel 1:10-17).
If I had broad authority, I would declare the week of Parshat Shmini “National Jewish Vegetarian Week.” Without that authority, I can only suggest: Honour Nadav and Avihu this week with a vegetarian meal. Don’t let their act of protest go unnoticed!
At opening day at the mishkan (sanctuary), vayera kivod-HaShem el kol ha’am. The glory of God appeared to the entire nation. (Leviticus 9:23) What an intense moment of communal euphoria! But Torah describes it so delicately and abstractly. What, exactly, appeared?
Rashbam (1985-1158) peeks ahead to the next verse, “a fire came out from the presence of God.” This information makes the event easier to reconstruct. People saw a fire flash forth from the Holy of Holies.
Abrabanel (1437-1508) wonders at this answer. Why associate the appearance of fire with the presence of God? Why not with water? After all, Torah says God settled on the mishkan in the form of a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night. Most likely, the so-called fire was light refracted by the cloud’s droplets.
Bechor Shor (1100s) reminds readers not to read too literally and quibble about physical manifestations of God. Properly understood, the kavod (glory) of God did not appear as a physical light. The word refers to the higher, spiritual Presence that our sages call Shechinah. People did not literally “see” a communal vision. Instead, each person felt deeply moved by a communal spiritual force.
Anthropologist Victor Turner (1920-1983) might say that communitas appeared. Normally, people relate to one another through practical and hierarchical roles. Sometimes, during disruptions or certain rituals, the everyday order disappears. A powerful, glorious, close-knit community appears. People include and help one another in unprecedented ways.
When and where in your life has communitas appeared — during victories, natural disasters, holidays, life cycle events, or significant transitions? Did you learn anything you can import into daily life? Can you find ways to help Shechinah appear?
Parshat Shmini introduces what we now call kosher eating, listing in detail principles and examples of permitted and forbidden animals. Famous principles include: Eat only mammals with a split hoof who chew their cud; eat only aquatic creatures that bear fins and scales. No one knows for sure the original meaning of these principles. We theorize that they express ancient understandings of healthy eating; metaphysical principles of cosmic order; basic training in self-discipline; and more.
This week I’m reading the book Happier by Harvard psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar. Many people are unhappy, he writes, because they do not understand the psychology of happiness. Ben-Shahar invites us to examine the purpose and goals of our lives. Do we orient ourselves to living a life of meaning? Many people, he says, are concerned only with their material nourishment and success. Do we think carefully enough about what nourishes us emotionally? Are we “nearing bankruptcy in the only currency that really matters”?
Provoked by Ben-Shahar’s questions, I began to see the kosher laws in Parshat Shmini in a different light. The Biblical laws can be read as metaphorical reminders to nourish ourselves spiritually and emotionally. Each law prompts us to ask ourselves a question. Animals with a split hoof easily grip the ground – are we well-grounded? Animals who chew their cud literally ruminate – do we take the time to bring up our experiences and reflect on them? Fish with fins and scales move easily in fluid environments – are we able to be flexible as life changes around us?
As Ben-Shahar says, “When the questions that guide our life are about finding more meaning, we are much more likely to derive benefit from the journey.”
Radical Vegetarian Priests (2011/5771)
Torah explains that the first human beings were vegetarians, but after the great flood people were allowed to eat meat as a compromise with their violent nature. Yet it also records instances of people who continued to choose vegetarianism: the prophet Daniel and (I believe) Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aharon the priest.
Torah says: They brought a strange fire, one that they had not been instructed to bring. A fire leapt out from the presence of God and consumed them, and they died in the presence of God.
What happened in this strange scene? Commentators have scanned the surrounding text for clues. Here are two traditional interpretations plus my own modern ecological view.
Nadav and Avihu, in a religious frenzy, offered themselves as a sacrifice: Fire leaps out from the altar as it does when a proper offering is presented. Their surviving brothers are called notarim, the unburned part of an offering.
Nadav and Avihu, in celebration of this special event, were drunk. Shortly after they die, God says, “Don’t drink wine and liquor when you approach the Tent of Meeting so you won’t die!”
Nadav and Avihu were opposed to animal sacrifice, and offered a flammable oiled vegetable stew instead. Their father and surviving brothers refuse to eat the meat from the day’s offerings. Moshe explains that it is permissible for Israelites to eat certain animals. Months later, when their father cleanses the sanctuary, his ritual includes letting a goat go free.
Consider this act of resistance a hint that some Jews have always considered vegetarianism a spiritual obligation. In support, please join us for our kosher dairy vegetarian potluck lunch, and please contribute to it, even if you don’t have time to cook creatively!
Silencing the Inner Critic (5768/2008)
Aharon’s sons die while making a “strange” offering to God on the altar, an offering that was not specifically commanded. Moshe attempts to comfort Aharon:
“And Moshe said to Aharon: This is that which the Lord spoke, saying: By those that are near unto Me will I be made holy, and before all the people I will be glorified. And Aharon was silent.” (Vayikra/Leviticus 10:3)
What is Moshe saying, and why is Aharon silent? N.H. Weisel writes: “In my opinion, Moshe assured Aharon that his sons were holy men, close to God, whose downfall was a result of their greatness. God dealt with them sternly for an offence prompted by the love of and yearning for God.”
N.H. Weisel teaches that God deals with the righteous harshly. Similarly, our sages teach that the righteous deal with themselves harshly. The Talmud states that the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, of the holiest people is huge. They work constantly to improve themselves, and experience the journey to goodness as long and formidable.
There is some wisdom in holding oneself to high standards. At the same time, there is wisdom in silencing the self-judging voice. Many commentators find Moshe’s response to Aharon inappropriate, and Aharon’s silence appropriate. Perhaps Aharon’s silence reminds us: just as we learn to extend compassion towards others by balancing judgment with silence, so we must learn to extend the same compassion towards our own selves.
Inspired by Nechama Leibowitz
Priests at the Table (5767/2007)
If we tried to understand the rituals described in the book of Vayikra by studying them one by one, we might well decide that they don’t mean anything. In fact, each individual ritual is meaningless in and of itself. The rituals only begin to make sense when we look at them as a coordinated set of symbols.
Take, for example, some of the kosher laws in Parshat Shemini. To qualify as edible, a mammal must have split hoofs and chew its cud. These criteria sound absurd – until you realize two things. (1) They effectively eliminate the entire animal kingdom from human consumption, except for three domestic grass-eating species. (2) The three mammals that can be eaten — cattle, sheep, and goats – are the only mammals that can be offered as a sacrifice to God.
In this context, the teachings of the kosher laws begin to make sense. All life is sacred and inviolable. Only the animals eligible for sacred sacrifice – for “God’s table” – may be eaten at the dining table. Symbolically, the dinner table is an altar. Symbolically, all the diners are priests. Every meal is a sacred ritual: a time for thanking God for the repast, requesting a blessing for the future, and engaging in conversation befitting the sanctified meal.
Adapted from Jacob Milgrom