Levi Kopald Bar Mitzvah drash: Sh’mini

Shabbat shalom. My parsha, or Torah portion, is Sh’mini, which is in the book of Leviticus. Most of Sh’mini is about dietary laws which is what you can and cannot eat in Jewish law. Some things you cannot eat are animals that do not have true hooves or do not chew their cud. Also, you may not eat birds of prey, and most insects and shellfish.

But what I think is the most interesting part of my parsha is the story of Nadav and Avihu. Two sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, put fire and incense in a fire-pan, and then offered to God some sort of unholy, bad, or alien fire. And then for some reason God killed them; fire shot out and they died! Then Moses said to Aaron: “This is what God meant when God said: ‘This is how I will make myself holy – through those near to me I will show myself to be holy.’” And Aaron remained silent.

I had a lot of questions about what happened to Nadav and Avihu. Why did Nadav and Avihu make this offering in the first place? What made the fire they offered unholy? When God said “This is how I will make myself holy” – how did God killing Nadav and Avihu make God holier?

Many commentators have had similar questions about what happened. One explanation for what happened to Nadav and Avihu is that they were being punished because they were drunk.

Rashi, born in Northern France in 1040 and one of the most widely read commentators of the Torah, quotes an ancient rabbi named Rabbi Ishmael, who said: “[They died because] they had entered the sanctuary after having drunk wine. The proof is that after their death, God told Aaron and his remaining sons that they may not enter the sanctuary after having drunk wine. . . .”

Rashi offers another possible reason for why Nadav and Avihu were put to death: they were  punished because they were being disrespectful. In fact, Rashi mentions two ways that Nadav and Avihu could have been disrespectful. Rashi quotes another ancient rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer, who said: “Aaron’s sons died only because they rendered halachic decisions in the presence of Moses, their teacher.” In other words, Nadav and Avihu decided for themselves what the law meant.  They were being disrespectful to Moses, and therefore they were punished by God.

A second possibility comes from a midrash that says the Israelites were journeying through the desert with Moses and Aaron at the front, and all of Israel came after them. As they traveled along, Nadav said to Avihu, ‘Shortly, these two old men will die and we will lead the congregation.’ The way that they refer to Moses and Aaron, as old men – it could be realistic, saying that they’re going to die soon because it’s true, but it’s also very  disrespectful, and they clearly wanted power for themselves. On a deeper level, Nadav and Avihu were doubting Moses and Aaron’s abilities to teach them anymore, or to lead the nation.

So far, I’ve looked at the deaths of Nadav and Avihu as a punishment from God, either because they were drunk or because they were being disrespectful. But another, very different interpretation of what happened is that Nadav and Avihu just wanted to be close to God. What do I mean by this? Back in the book of Exodus, there’s a story of Moses, Aaron, Nadav, and Avihu going part of the way up Mt. Sinai to prostrate themselves before God. Quoting from Exodus Chapter 24, it says: “Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and the seventy elders arose. They saw the God Of Israel and beneath God’s feet, a brickwork of sapphire … They viewed the Lord, they ate and drank.”

What’s happening here?  Nadav and Avihu went up Mount Sinai, and saw God! What was this experience like for them? It was probably incredible – and pretty unimaginable. So maybe they had such a transcendent experience that they wanted to repeat it, and that’s why they ran to bring God a fire-offering, not thinking about or even caring about what might happen to them. Or, maybe they just made a mistake based on this past experience. Maybe they assumed that because they’d gone partway up Mount Sinai in the past, with Moses, to see God, they would also be able to offer sacrifices however they wanted in the future – because they were so dear to God.

Up until now, we’ve looked at Nadav and Avihu’s actions and motivations. But what about God’s?

If we look back at Leviticus chapter 10, verse 3, it says: “Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what God spoke, [when God said], ‘I will be sanctified through those near to Me, and before all the people I will be glorified.’”

Some commentators have suggested that this verse is related to what happened to Nadav and Avihu. What could this mean, that in killing Nadav and Avihu, God was glorified? Perhaps God wanted the people of Israel to see God again, because God had already been seen at Mount Sinai. So God demonstrated God’s glory to the Israelites by consuming Nadav and Avihu.  In other words, God wanted an audience. And I can relate to this – for example, I want people I’m close to to see me at my basketball games or baseball games–it’s understandable to want to be seen, especially when you’re good at something.

In this interpretation, God acts without caring about Nadav and Avihu. But there’s also another possible interpretation: that  God actually helped Nadav and Avihu by killing them.  In this interpretation, their death is not a punishment, but actually a reward from God–a way of being one with God, which they desperately wanted. It’s even possible that the strange fire they offered was such a wonderful, spontaneous offering that God instinctively drew them in and consumed them.

This interpretation is supported by a passage from  Torat Kohanim, which says that when Nadav and Avihu died, “Two thread-like [sparks] of fire entered their nostrils thereby destroying their souls along with all their internal organs, but leaving their external body structures intact.” It’s possible that this is proof that their being consumed by fire was a favor or blessing from God because their souls simply joined God and their bodies were left unharmed.

So. What kind of God is this? How does this relate to our lives?

The first time you hear this story, you might think Aaron’s sons died for no reason. Yet after many weeks of study and comparing the commentators’ interpretations, I think this story teaches us that there’s more than one way to be close to God. Everyone doesn’t have to have the same practices. However, the repercussions of trying to get close to God can be very dangerous.

Another possible moral of this story is that it’s hard to get close to God. It takes a lot of work, and we don’t necessarily know how to do it. There’s a lot of mystery there–not knowing what will happen. But above all, it’s important to be respectful–not just respectful to God, but also respectful to those around you, because they are extensions of God.

We don’t actually know what God is like, or what will happen when we try to get close to what is holy. This is all a mystery. However, what we’re left with is something that’s less mysterious, but almost as challenging: We know that what we can do to be close to God is to be respectful of other people.

With this in mind, Rabbi Ora asked me to come up with a new set of Ten Commandments on how to be respectful, and I’m going to teach them to you now: 

  1. Don’t say hateful things – don’t swear, don’t say hurtful things, don’t be mean, don’t insult people.
  2. Don’t talk bad about people behind their backs. In Hebrew, the phrase for this is lashon hara.
  3. Give compliments to people – truthful ones, in order to make them feel good. In order to do this, first you have to think about the person and think about their positive qualities. Like my sister Ahava – she helps with my math homework, and then I thanked her for it.
  4. Say thank you to people. Showing manners is important by thanking people, and showing gratitude and appreciation for people.
  5. Show respect to parents, teachers, principals, rabbis, adults in position of authority – to people who can teach you things. Listen to instruction. Don’t argue with someone in authority.
  6. Greet people – show people that you care that they’re there. I could do that here at services – saying hello to a new kid, a new family.
  7. Listen – honor when someone else is speaking and don’t interrupt.
  8. Always keep promises that you make.
  9. Be respectful of places – of other people’s property, and don’t litter.Take care of nature, don’t pollute.
  10. Show that you care about people through your actions – let them know you’re thinking about their feelings.

In conclusion, I have learned many things throughout this process like the many ways to respect other people and God. But I have also learned what is disrespectful. Most of the things I have learned from reading my torah portion is from Nadav and Avihu. What do you think about Nadav and Avihu? Do you think it is just as simple as God killed them because they were drunk or do you think there is some higher meaning involved such as that God did Nadav and Avihu a favor?  What do you think?

Finally, I would like to thank my mom and dad for helping me in the entire process with making sure I practiced, taking me to different appointments, my dad helping me write this speech and  my mom planning the party and helping me study my Torah portion. Also, I would like to thank my Zede Newman for helping me embrace Jewish culture and become my Jewish self. I would also like to thank my Bubbe for teaching me about Judaism and about life in general. I would also like to thank my sisters Ahava and Clara for helping me study my Torah portion and helping me throughout this entire process. I would also like to thank Scott for helping make sure I practiced and also taking me to appointments. I would also like to thank Kathy for making my invitations and decorating the baseballs for my party. I would also like to thank Deb Kraus for helping me learn my Torah portion my haftorah and how this whole service is run. I would like to thank Rabbi Ora for helping me write this speech and teaching me about my torah portion and more about Judaism. Last but not least I would like to thank this whole congregation for supporting me throughout this entire process. Shabbat shalom.