Parashat Shemini

Parashat Shemini. Marilyn Paul at Congregation Netivot Shalom on April 10, 2021.

My name is Marilyn Paul. It’s good to be here.  I am honored to be here at this time of awe and re-initiation.  

Shmini means eighth and it refers to the fact that Aaron prepared for his priestly duties for seven days and on the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons to go up to initiate the altar for the congregation.  The Israelites were initiating their priestly way of life.  It was an inauguration of sorts.  It’s perfect for today, also a re-inauguration of sorts.  As the scene unfolds, things were going well.  It’s an incredible moment.  Everything seemed to be in order.   The sin offering, the burnt offering, the people’s offering.  The offerings were made and each time Aaron’s four sons brought the blood to him

And then we learn from the text.  “When they came out (of the Tent of Meeting) they blessed the people and the Presence of the Lord appeared to all of the people.  Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar.  And the people saw and shouted and fell on their faces.  It was full of awe.

Then the text says,  “Now, the sons are named Nadab and Abihu who each took his fire pan and put fire in it, laid incense on it and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined on them.”

“And the fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them.” 

“Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the Lord meant when He said, “Through those near to me I show myself holy.’”  They died in an instant.

Then Aaron was silent. Aaron was silent in the face of this enormous loss. What could he say?  There are no words.  

Yet, we want explanations.  How can we understand this?  Our sages have many different explanations.  They say that something was out of order. Something was offered that was not asked for by God.  Really?  That is why they died?  Two of the four sons who were assisting with the priestly duties?  They were such a key part of the priestly world unfolding.  But there is a suggestion that they weren’t fully engaged, or they were tired… Is it that there was a bit of chaos, when the rules are not followed?  That was it?  That’s why they died.  We can’t understand.  And, right now, we don’t need to understand.  We can stop trying to figure it out and just be with the sorrow that arose in the middle of the celebration.

For help in understanding this passage I turned to Blu Greenberg, a leading Orthodox feminist who was a friend of my mother-in-law. She’s the author of How to Run a traditional Jewish household. I read that book avidly during my frum years in Israel well before I met David.  She comments on this Parsha, by talking about the death of her son, JJ at the age of 36 in a bike accident. She said that people would look for explanations and say things like he was so good that God wanted him with Him.  

She says, Let us not ask for explanations. Let us not look for whom to blame or even why things happen.  We don’t know.  Let’s be silent in the face of the unnameable. Don’t make up stories.  She just wanted their friends to be present with them in their great pain.

As tempting as it is to look for reasons for our losses, that can take us away from being present with the difficult.  Being present with what is hard and letting it alter us.  Just being with the difficult without blaming, without running, or if we run, we come back, we pay attention, we stay connected.  

We have returned to this sanctuary in limited ways, but it’s not the same.  Some of us have lost family and friends. Beloved congregants are gone.  Some of us know of people who died of COVID or are suffering from complications. We are closer to loss now. I went to the funeral of a close cousin, about six weeks ago.  It was heart opening – he was so here, and now he is gone.   It reminds us that we are only passing through.  Jews are very good at staying with what is difficult and letting it transform us.

I also turned to what supports my work to help me understand this passage.   I am an organizational change consultant and I work with an approach called container theory.  The word container comes from the Latin which means to hold with – con means with and tenere means hold.  The idea is that transformational change comes when we hold with what is difficult and paradoxical in ourselves and with others.  We don’t take sides. We experience our strength and the support of others.  We let go of how we think things should be.  We bring non-judgmental attention and we stay with whatever is challenging for us.  We stop trying to figure things out.  We give up the stories.  We open to the deep humanity of our strength and our love.  We change.  Something new emerges.

And now, like Moses, Aaron and the congregation, we are in this inaugural moment, which is mixed with pain.  Perhaps, we like Aaron must fall silent and feel our feelings. Perhaps we can stay, for a moment, with the sorrow which is part of life.  Joy is part of life.  They intertwine.

We are starting again. And here now we’re beginning to come out of the worst of the pandemic.  We, the ones who did not die. We are still here. And it appears to me that in this moment, we fall silent, we don’t know what to say.  We let yirah – awe in the sense of amazement, and yirah, in the sense of fear, strike us silent because these are still frightening times 

So, here we are re-creating our beloved sanctuary, it will be different, it will feel different and something new will emerge.  I invite you to take a moment of silence and notice all that is here.  Thank you very much.