Parashat HaShavua – Shemini – For a Bar/Bat Mitzvah (assume years in the future)
As an educator, I would rather see students overzealous to learn and contribute to class, even if they are rowdy and loud and don’t wait to be called on, than quiet students who try to skate by without ever having to really do anything. Apparently, G-d and I have different teaching styles.
Rashi suggests that in Lev 9:7, Moses has to directly order Aaron to “Approach the altar and perform your sin offering and your burnt offering, atoning for yourself and for the people, and perform the people's sacrifice, atoning for them, as the Lord has commanded,” despite having already explained all this to Aaron, because Aaron was suddenly feeling shy and unsure of himself. I can empathize. I am not the student I prefer. By my seventh month as a rabbinic intern, I had learned my role in the order of service on Saturday mornings. Still, when we would turn to the page that I knew I would read, and when it came time to give the d’var Torah, I would look to the head rabbi to get my nod before I would speak. Moses said to Aaron: “Why are you ashamed? For this [function] you have been chosen!” - [Torath Kohanim 9:7]. I know now that I, too, have been chosen for this rabbinic work, but in the beginning, I had my moments of feeling inadequate for the job.
And if I hadn’t been chosen for this work, if I had been inadequate – woe to me! The JPS study bible summarizes this week’s parsha saying, “Aaron’s sons commit a blatant act of sacrilege, overstepping the strictly prescribed bounds of acceptable worship. The scripture says,
And Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his pan, put fire in them, and placed incense upon it, and they brought before the Lord foreign fire, which He had not commanded them.
א. וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ קְטֹרֶת וַיַּקְרִבוּ לִפְנֵי יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֵשׁ זָרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם:
ב. וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְ־הֹוָ־ה וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם וַיָּמֻתוּ לִפְנֵי יְ־הֹוָ־ה:
It seems they were trying to go above and beyond and were senselessly punished. Where is this blatant act of sacrilege? Such strong words! The rabbis were rightfully uncomfortable with this, deciding that Nadav and Avihu were clearly drunk. Because:
This warning is the back shadowing to tell us that the reason Nadav and Avihu had been killed was that they drank wine and then went to the Tent of Meeting. Although as usual, I am inclined to dismiss drashic interpretations of the text, I do prefer this to the peshat understanding that G-d was as overzealous in killing these boys were killed as they were in trying to honor him, however incorrectly.
Let us hope this is true, because you [B’nai Mitzvah] are precisely the student I wasn’t. You have the fervor of Nadav and Avihu, but the discipline of Aaron. You come at your studies with vigor and excitement, but were never afraid to ask questions. Even if Nadav and Avihu were sober, and their deaths that much more tragic, perhaps their sin was in their arrogance. Perhaps if they had asked for permission, they would have been granted. I know I have been so pleased with your studious questions in this journey, that I cannot imagine turning you away, putting out that fiery love for Judaism. Now that you are formally receiving the Torah and joining our holy community as a contributing adult, I hope you continue in this way, excitedly but with proper caution. And if you ever forget your caution, may you not be burned alive. Amen.