Parshat Shemini

Torah Reading for Week of March 24-30, 2019

“The Strange Fire of Vicarious Spirituality”

By Chaplain Marita Anderson, ’16

The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.


For me, one of the most empowering texts in the Torah is the Divine designation of Israel as a holy nation: “You shall be to Me (mimlechet kohanim) a kingdom of priests and (vaGoi kadosh) a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). This promise lifted a nation of slaves out of a demoralized status of strangers under Pharaoh’s authority. The children of Israel became an independent nation, agreeing to intimacy with God and, in theory, gaining democratic access to holiness.


I have often used this text to remind myself that Judaism empowers each person to have a relationship with the Divine without the need for an intermediary. Of course, we all need teachers and guides along the way on our journey, but the work of wrestling with deep questions and finding pathways to holiness is solely our own.

In¬†Shemini, we read “va’hitkadeshtem-You shall make yourselves holy” (Leviticus 11:44).¬†¬† The covenant did not instantaneously make the Israelites into a holy nation; it charged them with the reflexive term of the task. Aviva Zornberg writes that the biblical ideal of human holiness is expressed through the wish for the imitation of God, which harkens back to Genesis 1:26¬†“in our form and after our image.”


The book of Leviticus puts a caveat on the understanding of accessibility and holiness by describing, in great detail, the road map and specific rituals that would bring the Israelites closer to God. In Leviticus, the¬†Mishkan, or the indwelling of the Divine, became a mobile altar for the performance of sacrifices (korbanot: root is k-r-v, signifying close proximity to God). A priestly hierarchy emerged as Aaron became the chief priest and “the sons of Aaron, the Kohanim” (Lev 1:5) were chosen as the ones responsible for the complex system of the sacrificial cult.


Parshat Shemini¬†includes a narrative that makes me shudder each time I read it. The death of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, who perform an un-prescribed ritual, appears as a warning to the reader that not everyone who comes in close contact with the Divine survives. The text does not explain why the two brothers die after bringing an offering to God. It only says they brought a “strange fire” that God had not commanded. Something happened and the line of connection was broken, resulting in their death.


The mysterious story of Nadab and Abihu has been the subject of many interpretations, primarily because it leaves so many unanswered questions. I am not satisfied with the traditional justifications for what seems like an execution: that the brothers must have broken purity laws, or they must have been drunk, or there was envy in their hearts and they could not wait to take over for Moses and Aaron. Is the punishment of death appropriate for any of these offences?


The problem I face when working with the idea that the brothers brought an offering that God did not command, is that the punishment for this offering strips away any courage to experiment and take risks in the direct experience of spiritual life. This is especially problematic, as I often question religious norms and argue for innovations that make religious life relevant in contemporary times. What is the text trying to tell the spiritual “rule-breakers”? Where would the Jewish people be, if we did not insist on changing the rules?


Shemini¬†reminds me not to take for granted the charge for the Jewish people to act as “a nation of priests.” Judaism has evolved away from relying on an elite class of priests for bringing us close to the Divine, and perhaps it is time for us to recognize that we also have outgrown the theology of a punishing God.¬†Shemini¬†beckons us to do our own inner work, as there are no intermediaries to do it for us. In rejecting vicarious spirituality (one in which we outsource our spiritual lives), we each are invited to come closer to holiness.