Photo of Rabbi Ettedgui

Parashat Shmini - 5774

Joy and Glory

My friends,

Last week's Parasha ended with the seven days of rehearsal that Moses conducted with his brother Aaron, the priests, and the Levites, in the presence of all the Israelites, practicing for the big day when the Tabernacle will be consecrated. On the Eight Day, Moses gathers Aaron, his children, and all the elders of the community. He tells Aaron that this is the day. If Aaron and his children follow all the instructions they had been taught during the past seven days, and carry through the various rituals in the Tabernacle, G-d will show His glory to the entire people. Aaron and his children bring the sacrifices and do exactly as they had been taught. Aaron turns to the people and blesses them. A fire descends from before the L-rd and consumes the offerings. The people give a big cheer and fall to their faces in praise and in reverence to God.

This must have been the happiest day in Aaron's and Moses' lives. The Tabernacle has been dedicated. Aaron and his children were at their glory - as no less that the glory of G-d indicated satisfaction with the way they conducted the entire service.

Tragedy Strikes

Now, Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his fire pan, put fire and incense in it, and offered this alien fire before the L-rd - something which they were not commanded to do. A fire descends from before the L-rd and consumes them and they die before the L-rd.

Let us just imagine Aaron's feelings on this great day in his life. When he should be the happiest person on earth, having accomplished something no one ever had done before, he loses two sons. Moses comforts him and instructs him that the show must go on. He must finish the service and is not permitted to rend his garments, nor sit Shiva for his sons. Aaron's reaction - he keeps quiet.

Our sages have difficulty explaining what was so terrible that Nadab and Abihu did to deserve such punishment. Some explain that they were drunk, because the next commandment talks about Kohanim not allowed to drink on the job. Some explain that the sin was in bringing a foreign fire into the Temple. Others explain that these two would follow Moses and Aaron and murmur to each other, "When will these two old guys die already so we can take over?" The Torah does not really give a clear reason for their death.

I believe that this story is a reflection on life itself. Sometimes in the midst of or in the height of our joy, tragedy strikes and we have no explanation for it. I have been thinking about the 239 people on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 that disappeared two weeks ago. I read some of the stories about the passengers. There were many who were heading to a new job, a family celebration, visiting a parent they had not seen for awhile. Each one had a mission, a destination. Family and friends were waiting to welcome each and everyone of them. We still do not know what happened, and we may never know. Just like we don't really know why Aaron's sons died on the day when it should have been the happiest day in their lives and in the lives of the Children of Israel.

May your celebrations and happy occasions never be marred.

Shabbat Shalom,