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 Shimini   5784 | Rabbi David Wolkenfeld

04/09/2024 10:00:18 AM


Such Things Have Befallen Me

Sefer Vayikra has a bad reputation as a book without much plot. Perhaps for this reason, anytime there is narrative action in Sefer Vayikra it grabs so much of our attention and the death of Nadav and Avihu after they bring a “strange fire” has all of the features of a gripping story. On the very day that the mishkan is inaugurated and begins operation, the two oldest sons of Aharon place a “strange fire” on the altar and are killed by a consuming fire that comes down from God. The rest of the parasha takes place in the shadow of this dramatic and shocking death even as the Torah shifts back to a more prosaic halakhic discussion about the removal and burial of their bodies and an update to the laws of the priesthood indicating a prohibition against consuming alcohol before serving in the mishkan or serving in any form of religious guidance.

But, there is an easily overlooked detail a few verses later that hides a simmering drama with lasting reverberations.  There was a korban, an offering that had been brought earlier on that eighth day and it was supposed to be eaten, like all korbanot of that variety, by Aaron’s surviving sons, the remaining kohanim. In their  grief and in their mourning, they had neglected this responsibility to eat the korban and this alarmed Moshe greatly:

וְאֵ֣ת ׀ שְׂעִ֣יר הַֽחַטָּ֗את דָּרֹ֥שׁ דָּרַ֛שׁ מֹשֶׁ֖ה וְהִנֵּ֣ה שֹׂרָ֑ף וַ֠יִּקְצֹף עַל־אֶלְעָזָ֤ר וְעַל־אִֽיתָמָר֙ בְּנֵ֣י אַהֲרֹ֔ן הַנּוֹתָרִ֖ם לֵאמֹֽר׃

Then Moses inquired דָּרֹ֥שׁ דָּרַ֛שׁ מֹשֶׁ֖ה about the goat of sin offering, and it had already been burned! He was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s remaining sons, and said, “Why did you not eat the sin offering...? ...And Aaron spoke to Moses, “See, this day they brought their sin offering and their burnt offering before the LORD, וַתִּקְרֶ֥אנָה אֹתִ֖י כָּאֵ֑לֶּה  and such things have befallen me! Had I eaten sin offering today, would the LORD have approved?” 

וַיִּשְׁמַ֣ע מֹשֶׁ֔ה וַיִּיטַ֖ב בְּעֵינָֽיו׃

And Moshe heard. And it was good in his eyes.

These verses are the origin of the obligation to mourn. When we are in a state of mourning, certainly when a deceased relative lies before us unburied - a stage halakhah calls “aninut” we cannot engage with the world of mitzvot in a normal way. Some things are different. My teacher Rav Yehuda Amital z’l  thought that this passage in the Torah, and the obligation to mourn itself, were significant in a much broader way. 

A life of Torah and mitzvot ought to orient us towards something beyond ourselves and our own subjective desires and limited perspectives. And yet, we are meant to engage with the rubric of Torah and mitzvot as authentic human beings and not as robots. Nadav and Avihu were wrong to think that their subjective desire to serve in a specific way at a specific time was a license to bring a strange fire into the mishkan. But Moshe was also wrong to think that a family mourning the tragic deaths of their brothers and sons could maintain their religious practices as though nothing had changed. 

This morning we will recite Birkat HaHodesh in preparation for the month of Nissan, the month of redemption and the upcoming holiday of Pesach. 

Do you know the Hebrew children’s song:

שמחה רבה, שמחה רבה,

אביב הגיע, פסח בא

Rejoice with great joy! Spring is arriving and Pesach is coming.

Well, springtime is already here and Pesach will come as well, but I am finding it hard to rejoice this spring. There is a pall of grief hanging over the Jewish world as we mourn the losses of the war and as we struggle to find our footing as the very ground beneath our feet seems to shift from day to day. Spring is here, Pesach is arriving, but there is no spirit of great joy in the air. 

The lesson of דָּרֹ֥שׁ דָּרַ֛שׁ מֹשֶׁ֖ה Moshe’s inquiry into the uneaten korban is that it is OK to engage with mitzvot differently when circumstances are truly different. Aharon’s surviving sons were not able to eat the korban in a state of aninut. I hope that we will be able to celebrate Pesach with all of its customary rituals and mitzvot and songs. But they will be different this year, and they should be different this year. 

When I sing V’Hi She’Amda…this year and recall God’s promise that throughout the generations there would be enemies who would attempt to destroy the Jewish people, I will remember the depths of hostility towards Israel that has been exposed this year. As Professor Jonathan Gribetz pointed out last week during se’udah shlishit, fierce activism against Israel erupted around the world on October 7th before the Israeli military response had begun. That one observation of his has cast a shadow over my soul all week long. When I sing that HaKadosh Baruch Hu Matzileinu M’yadam - The Holy Blessed One rescues us from their hands I will be trying to nurture the faith that we will survive our current enemies as we have survived everyone who has come before since the time of Lavan himself.

When I read, this year,  about Rabbi Akiva, with his colleagues in Bene Brak, telling of the exodus from Egypt until morning, I will remember that Rabbi Akiva was the last rabbi in two thousand years to send his students from the beit midrash to war and think of my teachers at Yeshivat Har Etzion who, just days ago,  sent their Shannah Bet class of students to the army four months ahead of schedule to meet an urgent demand for new recruits. 

When I remove drops of wine from my cup as we list the ten plagues I will not only diminish my joy in light of the suffering Egyptians long ago but I will have in mind the estimated 25,000 orphaned Gazan children. The Zionist dream will remain unfulfilled in our lifetime unless the Jewish people, wherever we live, take responsibility that they live flourishing lives. 

In most years, just weeks ahead of Pesach, the most common question I receive concerns kashering a dishwasher. This year, the most urgent question that so many of my colleagues and I are fielding concerns anxiety about sitting down for the seder with friends and family who come into the holiday with contradictory political or ethical evaluations of the war. 

The Jewish community is divided like never before in my lifetime over our political and emotional reactions to the ongoing war. There are fault lines between right and left, between Israel and America, and between generations. This Pesach may be the first time, for many of us, to sit down at the table, for existential discussions about the contemporary meaning of Jewish freedom alongside people with vastly different ways of viewing the world and of understanding what it means to be Jewish. And while it is never easy for lovers of Israel to break bread with Jewish anti-Zionists, it can seem impossible to do so at the seder and during a time of war, when the stakes, on all sides, seem so high. And, of course, very often, the arguments can be even fiercer when the differences of opinion are quite small. 

But, the seder is the right place for those tensions to exist. We do not sit down at the Seder and read the first twelve chapters of the Book of Exodus. Instead, we read four verses from Deuteronomy that summarize our people’s history and we then engage in midrash, we explicate and draw out the story and its details through questions and answers that bring generations together in a dialogue that ensures that our story is picked up by a new generation.  

It is only when we debate, sometimes fiercely, about the meaning of our shared story, that we can make that story our own and allow it to survive into a new generation. Of course not every thought has to be shared and not every shared thought has to be shared at the seder, but the dialectic between different opinions is the space in which Torah can be transmitted. 

I’ve said on several occasions that everyone here has a frum cousin, unless you are the frum cousin. At the seder, I would say that if you look around the table and cannot identify the wicked child, then you are the wicked child.  The participants at the seder must have different thoughts and perspectives, even if they keep them to themselves, for the seder to be successful as a beit midrash. If everyone is in agreement except for you, or if everyone is in agreement except for your child or grandchild, be grateful for the possibility of creative dissonance. 

My colleague and friend, Rabbi Zach Truboff, recently published a collection of essays about Pesach, one of which contrasts the intergenerational dialogue at the Seder with the Oedipal clash of generations that Western culture has inherited from Ancient Greece via Freud. 

The interaction between the wicked child and their parent reminds us that some questions can be very chutzpadik and rightfully provoke anger. But the wicked child attends the seder and their parent answers their question. I think many of us need to dig deep into that well this Passover and ask uncomfortable questions that nobody else will ask if we do not and which will leave the Seder incomplete if they are not asked. And, when we are on the receiving end of a question like that, we need to do our best to respond in kind out of a spirit of Devarim HaYotzim Min HaLev Nichnasim el Halev…matters that come from the heart can penetrate the heart of another. 

In the words of Rav Shagar:  

“A deep yearning to connect and overcome estrangement can inspire the parent to understand that giving respect and freedom to their child  is what will cause a continuation of the tradition. The child, from their perspective, needs to understand that their freedom is impossible without a connection to their parent.”

I am eager to discuss your dishwashers with you and why canola oil is not kitniot. I am also eager to help you strategize for a seder that, this year, has unprecedented challenges, but also unprecedented potential to fufill the obligation that each one of us has to see ourselves as if we, personally, left Egypt.

Shabbat Shalom


Mon, July 22 2024 16 Tammuz 5784