You could say it’s a downer month in the yearly cycle of Torah readings. Week after week of animal sacrifices. Daily offerings, celebratory offerings, court-ordered criminal atonement offerings, purification offerings; offerings for grieving, healing, birthing, house restoration, holidays and more.
Did everyone in ancient Israel enjoy the butcher show at the 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!
For more reflections on Parshat Shmini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47) click here.
Adapted from a dvar Torah I offered at Or Shalom Synagogue in 2011. Image: Balthasar van der Ast (1593/4-1657).