Friday, April 21, 2006

DVAR TORAH: 8th (aka: Shmini)

Be sure and check out my previous Dvar Torah on Pesach, one of my favorite things I have ever written. But on to Parashat Shmini, a dvar torah I wrote while walking to the Shuq today and while having lunch at the Shipudim place next to it (mmm, levavot and keved...):

When I used to go to Junior Congregation at VBS, everybody knew that the guy who ran it, Neil's favorite parasha was Shmini because it gave him a chance to make laserbeam sound effects (a combination of whistling and humming; I would be happy to demonstrate on demand) to imitate the alien fire that consumed Nadav and Avihu, the two eldest sons of Aharon HaKohen.

This is one of my favorite parshiot as well because it breaks the lull as one of the few pieces in narrative buried in the entire book of Vayikra/Leviticus (to my JTS friends: 'cause P-Author is boring). It is thrilling and also one of those things in the Bible that leave out one piece of vital information that may be meant to lead us (as we cannot assume to comprehend the intentions of our Creator).

One of the lessons we are taught here is that a priest cannot drink on the job, leading some to believe that the sons of the High Priest were a bit fershikered, possibly due to the celebration of the end of Miluim, the seven day inauguration festival of the Tabernacle. This was the first day that the kohanim assumed their roles (as Moses acted as High Priest during the seven days), and they were raring to go. Much like me and my friends who used to sneak back into the choir loft in the darkened Main Sanctuary after friday night services and tried to figure out how to turn on the organ and then getting in trouble (not consumed by some divine fire, but it might as well have been).

We also learn the laws of mourning indirectly from this. Hashem tells Aaron and his two remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, that it is forbidden for them to let their hair grow wild or wear torn clothing. We therefore assume that they are the exception for a probably extant practice for Jewish mourners to let one's hair grow wild and to tear one's clothing, and this is the practice to this day. Aaron and his two remaining sons are also told not to fetch their bodies, but rather Aaron's cousins are sent in to pull out their corpses. Thus Kohanim are not to defile themselves for the dead if they can avoid it. We derive that Kohanim are not supposed to go into Jewish cemetaries unless it is one of the seven immediate relatives to this day. My question is what the Torah's intention is regarding other Kohanim regarding mourning rites, such as not cutting hair and tearing clothing. Priests nowadays do perform these rites.

Finally, it seems that God killed Nadav and Avihu in such a manner to show their holiness, and yet Aaron is silent. The various ways people deal with death as seen in the Torah are very interesting. Abraham's mourning for his wife Sarah comes with a Masoretic wink, a small letter in the word "and he cried" to perhaps indicate that he only mourned slightly (Genesis 23:2-3). Ishmael and Isaac come together to bury their father Abraham (Genesis 25:9), and Jacob and Esau come together to bury their father Isaac (Genesis 35:29). It seems that enmity needs to be put off to bury one's relatives Jacob is mourned by the Egyptians for 70 days, and his embalming and mummification, an Egyptian but not a Jewish practice, took 40 (Genesis 50:3). Joseph mourned intensely for his father after they crossed the Jordan for seven days (Genesis 50:10). This seems to be the source for Shiva, the seven days of intensest mourning. Miriam, the first of the big three to die, died in Kadesh and was buried, and immediately afterwards the people complained about lack of water (Numbers 20:1-2). Aaron was mourned by the entire community for 30 days when they realized he was dead, (Numbers 20:26-29). Moses gets a eulogy and the Israelites mourn for him for 30 days, and then their mourning comes to an end and they get on with life (Deuteronomy 34).Mourning ranges from silence (by Aaron) to bewailing (for Aaron) and it is very interesting to notice the practices, whether one holds back tears or lets them flow. It is just important to remember that though they may be gone, we may not mourn forever. Joseph continued on with life after 7 days, and so must we. For Aaron and for Moses, two of our greatest leaders, we mourned for 30 days and then we lived life as normal. We must completely return to society after 7 days and must live our lives again after the greater mourning period has ended.

Shabbat Shalom,

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