Parshat Shemini

By Rabbi Alicia Magal, ’03, AJRCA Professor of Liturgical Studies

What is so special about the eighth day? Shemini, the eighth day, in this week’s Torah portion, (Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47) follows the seven days of ceremony and dedication of the Mishkan and the priests. Everyone now has their roles, led by Aaron as High priest.  All the anointments and exciting completion of this huge building project are complete.  Eight is the new beginning for real, the new “day one” of functioning.


Shemini was my own Torah portion when I celebrated becoming an adult Bat Mitzvah at Hebrew Union College in 1987.  At that time I thought it was unfair that Aaron’s elder sons, Nadav and Avihu, pay with their lives their very first attempt to bring the incense sacrifice.  I figured that leaders get to practice for some time before they perform their leadership roles with a certain professionalism and flow. I said something like, “This was the first creative service… and they died!”  There I was, surrounded by rabbinic, cantorial, and education students, all of whom were in training for leading services, not yet in a perfected, polished way.  I was the Museum Educator at the Skirball Museum which at that time was still housed at the HUC campus in downtown Los Angeles.  I was eager to learn how to leyn Torah and this was my first attempt, many years before I would become a rabbi myself.


In the years of study and leadership since that time I have come to understand a little better the shocking scene depicted in Leviticus 10 where the sons of Aaron bring “strange fire that had not been commanded, and the fire came forth and consumed them.”  How could Aaron remain silent while the rest of the community wailed and mourned their loss? Aaron had to remain in his priestly leadership role and mourn privately later. He had to hold the energy and continue the service, while others could give voice to their grief. How did he deal with a personal catastrophe and yet go on serving his people?  How did he deal with the paradox of doing holy work which was kadosh – separate, distinct, set aside, dedicated to God – while assisting ha-Am – the People- to draw closer to divine service through sacrifices, in Hebrew Korban (from the root KRV – to draw close)?  He had to quiet his personal feeling (Vayidom Aharon, and Aaron was silent; i.e. could not mourn publicly), and had to adjust to a new reality.  It would not be the normal order of his elder two sons performing holy work, and unexpectedly, suddenly, it would fall to cousins, Mishael and Elzaphan, to carry out the bodies of Nadav and Avihu outside the camp.  Aaron and his two younger sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, could not show signs of mourning, but rather they would have to continue to serve as ritual leaders in their duty to the congregation of Israel.  Further, God spoke to Aaron regarding a state of purity, distinguishing between sacred and profane, between clean and unclean.


That dichotomy of the leader having to serve the community at times when personally he or she is going through a very tough time, is very real in the life of a spiritual leader.


So, what can we learn from the shocking death of Aaron’s elder sons? In relation to those young men who, lightheartedly or without proper reverence and grounding, were consumed, we learn to take very seriously ritual that enhances our ability to come closer to the holy realm.  Both as leaders and as members of community, we need to approach meditative prayer, chanting, and all forms of religious observance with reverence and respect for the power of such rituals to lift us up from our regular state to an elevated soul connection.  That can be very inspiring and enlightening, but we must also stay grounded so that we return to our body awareness, with the divine spark strengthened, and not consuming us.  In Judaism we are to climb the spiritual mountain and then return back to this plain, so we can put those inspiring and elevated experiences to work for the health, continuity, and benefit of ourselves and others.


May we all, community members and leaders alike, recognize the true divine spark within each soul, and offer our prayers in a sincere and uplifting way that enhances the life of our community.