|This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H, my maternal grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H, my paternal grandfather Moshe Ben Yosef A”H, uncle Reuven Nachum Ben Moshe & my great aunt Rivkah Sorah Bas Zev Yehuda HaKohein.
It should also be in Zechus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandmothers Channah Freidel Bas Sarah, and Shulamis Bas Etta-MY BROTHER: MENACHEM MENDEL SHLOMO BEN CHAYA ROCHEL-HaRav Gedalia Dov Ben Perel
-Mordechai Shlomo Ben Sarah Tili-Yechiel Baruch HaLevi Ben Liba Gittel
-Noam Shmuel Ben Simcha
-Chaya Rochel Ettel Bas Shulamis
-Nechama Hinda Bas Tzirel Leah
-And all of the Cholei Yisrael, especially those suffering from COVID-19.
-It should also be a Z’chus for an Aliyah of the holy Neshamos of Dovid Avraham Ben Chiya Kehas—R’ Dovid Winiarz ZT”L, Miriam Liba Bas Aharon—Rebbetzin Weiss A”H, as well as the Neshamos of those whose lives were taken in terror attacks (Hashem Yikom Damam), and a Z’chus for success for Tzaha”l as well as the rest of Am Yisrael, in Eretz Yisrael and in the Galus.
שְּׁמִינִי ● Sh’mini
● Did Nadav and Avihu die because they sinned or because they were “holy”? Did Moshe bend the truth to appease his brother? ●
“From Holy Brothers to Creepy Crawlers”
The beginning of Parshas Sh’mini features the eventful eighth day of the Mishkan’s inauguration which is remembered for tragedy of the untimely deaths of Aharon’s oldest sons Nadav and Avihu, an event we’ve visited and elaborated on at length.1
On the opposite end of the Sidrah, we have the gateway to the laws of ritual impurity, Tumah and Taharah.2 The focal point of this discussion which we’ve also discussed is the Sheratzim, creeping things (such as rodents, insects and reptiles). These creatures which creep along the earth are also referred to as Shekatzim, literally, disgusting things, or Remasim, crawling creatures. They’re not only forbidden for consumption as per the Torah’s dietary restrictions, but they contract Tumah, ritually impurity.
Nadav & Avihu to “Sheratzim”
In an earlier discussion, we addressed the question as to how the Torah ultimately made it from point A, Nadav and Avihu, to point B, the discussion of Tumah and Taharah. In answering that question, we explored the passage which bridged the two ends of our Sidrah, relating to the restriction against drinking wine in or when entering the Tent of Meeting.3 In that discussion, we elaborated on the significance of wine and suggested that intoxication characterizes the the naturally skewed and emotionally inclined judgment of mankind. We suggested that this faulty judgment was the simple basis for the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu and argued further that the restriction against wine amidst Avodah and Halachic ruling serves as a backdrop for the humanly “indecipherable” statutes known as Chukim, such as the laws governing Tumah and Taharah.
Indeed, that discussion served as a fair road map to help us navigate through the Sidrah, connecting the seemingly unrelated points at either end. The Torah’s navigation through Sh’mini has been clarified.
Sh’mini on the Torah Globe
However, let’s takes an even further step back and consider Parshas Sh’mini more globally. The question one has to wonder is why exactly the Torah shifted the conversation specifically to the topic of ritual impurity of all Chukim. Indeed, there are a lot of Chukim in the Torah, not all of which are related to Tumah and Taharah. And the discussions Kashrus and Sheratzim which cap off Parshas Sh’mini are not really standalone discussions, local and exclusive to Sh’mini. As was mentioned, it is the gateway to the fuller gamut of Tumah and Taharah which will continue into Parshiyos Tazria and Metzora.
That means that the “bridge” topics in Sh’mini could not merely have been incidental. They are the foundation, perhaps a paradigm in the discussion of Tumah and Taharah. Between the deaths of Nadav and Avihu and the discussion of Sheratzim may lay a more fundamental relationship which, if uncovered, can reveal eye-opening lessons and implications about the Torah’s attitude of Nadav and Avihu as it relates to the conversation of ritual impurity. What might be the nature of that relationship?
The Wrong Way to G-d
Very simply, Ramban makes an observation which sheds light on a basic link between the two topics. He points out that the discussions of Tumah and Taharah, though technically relevant to all of Am Yisrael, pertain more practically to the Kohanim as Tumah, “ritual impurity” naturally disturbs the ritual which a Kohein is supposed to perform. One ritually impure may not enter the Holy Temple to perform a Temple service.
With that in mind, the topic of Nadav and Avihu’s deaths is seamlessly followed by both the prohibition of intoxication amidst Temple service and the laws of ritual impurity as all three topics inform us about the inappropriate ways of approaching Hashem.
Now that we have identified some of the inappropriate ways of engaging in the delicate endeavor of approaching Hashem, let us evaluate the two which we have already started to give our attention to. Granted, all of the pieces of our Sidrah point to the “wrong way to G-d,” but are they all equally disdainful before Him?
“I brought you up from the land of Egypt”4
While we ponder the above question, an issue worth our consideration is what exactly it is that the Torah finds to be so abhorrent or “impure” about rodents and reptiles. Why should they be Halachically different from other animals? What’s the difference between a rat and a cow that the Torah forbids consumption of one over the other? They’re both meat, but a cow can be eaten or even offered as a sacrifice to G-d, whereas a rat, as per the Torah’s philosophy, is not only non-kosher, but it is considered disgusting, fundamentally contaminated.
Moreover, the Torah does not only have this apparent disdain for creeping things, but the Torah seems to consider Israel’s distance from Sheratzim as the reason why Israel was redeemed from its exile. From where might one draw such an extreme conclusion? From explicit text in the end of our Sidrah. Parshas Sh’mini concludes its topics with a general declaration that the B’nei Yisrael are forbidden to become impure through the Sheratzim because they need to be holy like G-d. Then, the Torah specifies, “Ki Ani Hashem HaMa’aleh Es’chem Mei’Eretz Mitzrayim Lihiyos Lachem Leilokim…”-“For I am Hashem Who brings you up from the land of Egypt, to be for you as a G-d…”4
Clearly, as we’ve been explaining, the Torah’s concentration on ritual impurity is no coincidence. It is quite deliberate. Following the inauguration of the Mishkan, we were told that that Hashem delivered us from Egypt in the time of the Exodus so that we would not lower ourselves by eating these creatures. The question is: What do Sheratzim have to do with Hashem’s bringing us up from Egypt? Was that actually Hashem’s end goal—that we should refrain from eating snakes and vermin? Was not the single goal of the Exodus for us to forge a bond with Hashem and receive His Torah overall? Presumably, that is the case, and if it is, why would the Torah seem to limit the larger endeavor to the mere dissociation from Sheratzim?
Revisiting Nadav & Avihu
Moving back over to point A, the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, although from the simple read of the Chumash, Nadav and Avihu were consumed by a fire from G-d after they offered up an unauthorized “Eish Zarah,” a strange fire, in the Kodesh HaKadashim before Hashem, the story is apparently not That simple. The nature of the sin and subsequent deaths of Nadav and Avihu is obscure. This much is evident as much ink has been spilled over this incident by Chazal who have diligently offered various suggestions and have pinpointed the exact ramifications of Nadav and Avihu’s sin.
However, if one thing is obvious, it is that Nadav and Avihu committed some offence and their lives were taken for it. Having established that Nadav and Avihu definitely sinned, what happened after their deaths is quite puzzling. In response to Nadav and Avihu’s deaths, Moshe, seemingly in attempt to comfort Aharon, reassured him, “…Hu Asheir Dibeir Hashem Leimor B’Krovai Ekadeish V’Al P’nei Chal HaAm Ekaveid…”-“…It is as Hashem had spoken: ‘Through those close to Me [lit., through my close ones, siblings], I will be sanctified, and [subsequently] in the presence of the entire nation I shall be glorified’…”5
In a previous discussion6, we were bothered because Moshe’s words of consolation seemed to be somewhat misleading. The summary of his “encouraging” words, as elucidated by Chazal is essentially, “Your sons, Nadav and Avihu, must have been really close to G-d because G-d actually mentioned that He’d become sanctified by those who are close to Him.” Thus, Moshe seemed to be suggesting that the deaths of Aharon’s two sons were a result of their closeness to Hashem. Now, this is not at all to suggest that Nadav and Avihu were not close to G-d. It is entirely possible that they were close to G-d, but is that the reason why they had just died? Is it not plainly obvious that they were consumed in a fire as a result of their misdeed? Nadav and Avihu didn’t die because they were holy and “close to G-d,” but because, at the end of the day, they did the wrong thing and overstepped their bounds. Was Moshe denying or simply neglecting to acknowledge that reality? Was he possibly bending the truth to make his bereft brother feel better?
It is not even like Moshe was urging his brother that “Gam Zu L’Tovah”-“This too is for the good”7 or that we simply cannot fathom G-d’s ways. He was praising Aharon’s sons, seeming to attribute some aspect of the very tragedy that resulted from their sin to their closeness with Hashem, immediately following their deaths. What then is the consoling factor here? Of what redeeming aspect of this tragedy is Moshe trying to reassure Aharon?
Though we provided an answer to part of that question earlier, in that discussion, we focused mainly on the Kiddush Hashem that resulted from their deaths. We never directly addressed Nadav and Avihu themselves. Moshe was certain that these were righteous people, perhaps more than he and Aharon. Moshe draws this conclusion in the wake of their deaths, in the wake of their sin. Wherein the sin lays the apparent praise of Nadav and Avihu?
Returning to the Torah’s shift from Nadav and Avihu to the laws revolving the Tumah of Sheratzim, perhaps one could suggest that the above issues have a fundamental connection in that they both represent opposite extremes in spirituality which have starkly differing implications about one’s relationship with Hashem. Put plainly, the difference between our lifestyle choices or even our mundane activities can mean either closeness to G-d or distance from Him. In general, the goal is to achieve closeness with Hashem, certainly more closeness than distance. Gravitation towards the mundane world means greater distance from Hashem. Transcendence and spiritual toil means greater intimacy. But, it is actually not that simple.
With all else being equal, even within the realm of sin, there is a way of being pure, spiritual and intimate with G-d versus being disgusting in G-d’s eyes. One can theoretically violate the will of G-d without being an impure lowlife. He can reach the goal of closeness and intimacy with G-d. It is tricky because as was mentioned, in general, the goal is closeness with G-d, but indeed, there are boundaries, as there are in all relationships, so that if G-d draws the line at point X, then one’s responsibility is to stop at point X. A single step further, though it may conceptually achieve the goal of closeness, is considered trespass, a “violation” of G-d’s will. It is “too close.” Correct, it is not lowly and impure; it is a step in the right direction. It is certainly lofty. But, perhaps there is such a thing as “too lofty.”
This might have been Moshe’s message to Aharon following the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. Nadav and Avihu had trespassed a command of G-d and were taken from the world as a result. There is no covering up for their sin, and it is hard to accept that Moshe intended to do so. But, what was Moshe pinpointing? That although they were objectively wrong in their actions and Hashem thus had to take their lives for the sin they had committed, they, in some way, can be ascribed a degree of honor as per a sense of closeness to G-d which they had which Moshe perhaps did not want anyone to mistake. They undoubtedly went too far, but their direction was spot on, perhaps closer to the mark than the entire rest of the B’nei Yisrael who did not die that day. Nadav and Avihu’s hearts were centered on achieving closeness to G-d; it just needed to be tapered.
Perhaps we can argue that the sin of Nadav and Avihu, in this way, resembles the phenomenon which Chazal refer to as an Aveirah L’Shmah, a transgression for the sake of heaven, which, in some ways, is considered more honorable than a Mitzvah which was not for the sake of Heaven.8 Considering that their goal and ultimate destination was in fact closeness to Hashem, we can argue that even in their sin, they acted or at least attempted to act L’Sheim Shamayim, for the sake of Heaven. Was their route to that destination not dangerous and even more, objectively the wrong route of choice? One hundred percent, it was dangerous and incorrect. Especially, since, for an Aveirah L’Shmah to be accepted favorably by Hashem requires that, in fact, it is absolutely, purely L’Shmah with no ounce of personal favor, which just maybe, Nadav and Avihu’s action was not. Certainly, nobody should copy their actions. But, their apparent exuberance for not just “spirituality,” but closeness with Hashem has to strike us as somewhat awe-inspiring.
Clearly, Nadav and Avihu’s methodology was incorrect and plainly against the will of G-d, but the narrative itself is evidently not that simple. There is plenty to consider when drawing a final conclusion about the likes of Nadav and Avihu. Their goal, like ours hopefully is, was closeness or intimacy with G-d. It was a hazardous route but to a similar destination as the one we aspire to achieve. In this particular way, though we should not emulate, we should certainly think and aspire the way Nadav and Avihu did.
On the other hand and perhaps the opposite extreme, the rest of the Sidrah highlights that which makes a person “ritually impure.” What is this ritual impurity if not a reflection of objective distance from G-d? The Torah uses the dietary laws perhaps to illustrate what gaps the bridge between man and his Creator. Among the invisible and intangible drawbacks associated with Tumah is what Chazal refer to as Timtum HaLeiv, blockage of the heart .9 Although man is encouraged to take part in this world—man can even eat of the animals, at the same time, man still has to be Kadosh or holy like his Creator. Doing so entails gaining an understanding of the reality that man is not one with the soil he walks on, but he can and must reach higher.
The Sheratzim which crawl with their stomachs practically pressed against the dust of the earth do not promote this higher yearning. They swarm about earth below man and all other creatures, representing the mundane tendency of man to mindlessly conform, assimilate and become one with the lowly, earthly society around him simply because he lacks the self-respect to stand above the masses, to be daring enough to have a transcendent mindset and heed the inner calling to rise towards something higher.
Sheratzim in Egypt
This lifestyle, as represented by the Sheratzim, believe it or not, was a major contributor to the notorious subjugation of the B’nei Yisrael in Egypt and is even alluded to in the Torah’s text. The Pasuk in Shemos describes the way the B’nei Yisrael multiplied in Egypt, using many languages, one of which shares the same root as Sheratzim, “Vayishritzu”-“and they swarmed.”10
Sforno points out that although the B’nei Yisrael increased in quantity, the word “Vaysihritzu” indicates that decreased in quality; they became lowly and rodent-like (note the root word, “Sheretz” [שרץ]). They figuratively swarmed about the earth like unimportant vermin with their stomachs on the dirt, attached to the immoral, idolatrous, Egyptian way. Indeed, with this understanding of Sheratzim, there is no wonder why our avoidance of Sheratzim is the key to Torah lifestyle which promotes rising above the earthly boundaries, reaching higher. Thus, G-d stresses that, yes, it is for this purpose that He brought us up from Egypt —so that we rise above the hedonistic, earthly path. G-d brought us out so that we might cease from sullying ourselves in the dust of the earth and wallowing in shame.
Holy Brothers to Creepy Crawlers
As we venture through this complicated Sidrah, we learn not merely to point the guilty finger at Nadav and Avihu, nor to merely accept the apparent impurity of rodents and move on. When we read between the lines, passed the superficial read, the narrative of Nadav and Avihu, coupled with the laws of Sheratzim reveals the nuances of two pathways that are impacted by our daily decisions. At every point in our lives, whatever it is we are doing, we have the option to live a life of becoming close with Hashem, or Chas V’Shalom, distant from Him. The question is if we are going to have high, holy yearnings like those of Nadav and Avihu? Are we going to be careful not to “get too close” and trespass amidst that ambitiously lofty goal? Or are we just going to be completely indifferent, melt away into the surrounding society, and sell ourselves short by following the worms and maggots towards the dirt, leaving our spiritual passion to fall by the wayside? The Torah’s guidelines are set and now we’re graced with the calling to aim high.
May we all be Zocheh to safely close the gap of not only social distance between us and our friends and family, but to close that of all spiritual distance between us and Hashem, and we should all be reunited once again in the Eternal Temple with the coming of Moshiach, Bimheirah Biyomeinu! Have a Great Shabbos! Don’t forget to count Sefiras HaOmer (#9).
-Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂
- Vayikra 10
- See what I wrote earlier in this Sidrah, “Kiddush Hashem—One Way or Another.”
- Ta’anis 21A
- Nazir 23B
- See Yoma 39A and Maharshal’s comments to Yevamos 147
- Shemos 1:7