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Torah Portion: Shemini

Book of Leviticus

Chaps. 9:1-11:47

April 1, 2016


This section of Torah contains a most troubling account-the deaths of Aaron the High Priest’s two sons: Nadav and Abihu. A parent’s loss of two young sons is difficult enough, but the account in Leviticus reads: “Aaron’s sons Nadav and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which God had not enjoined upon them. And the fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord.” (Lev. 10:1-2) Aaron, the religious leader of the Israelite nation, witnessed his two sons death at the hands of God. Why?

A later rabbinic midrash/legend suggests the “strange fire” they offered was in fact the fire of ambition. “When will these old men, our father (Aaron) and our uncle (Moses) die already so that we can take their place?” The 19th century German rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh suggests they were punished for assuming the mantle of authority while disregarding the traditions of their elders.

It appears obvious the above interpretations were written by older men (“elders”)!   When your young, in the words of William Shakespeare’s character Pistol (The Merry Wives of Windsor), “. . .the world is your oyster.” “Carpe Diem”-Cease the moment! Youth must be served. I know all this sage advice to be true. I was young once and felt the same way. The traditions of the elders need to be taught and respected, but a healthy community affords them a vote, not a veto.

It is easy to become jaded, writing off youthful enthusiasm, expression, and creativity as the product of inexperience and lack of years. However, one does so at one’s own peril. Canadian voters entrusted their government to a youthful 44-year old Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. In America, Bernie Sanders, a 74-year old Jewish socialist, is defying the eulogies of political pollsters in his campaign for a presidential nomination with a message that has galvanized the young-his single-largest demographic support. In January 1961, another 44-year old, John F. Kennedy, said on the day of his inauguration as President of the United States, “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation. . .”

Nadav and Abihu didn’t need to die. Maybe they just needed to be listened to. They may have had something important to say or teach. We will never know, and that is a shame.

“The youth shall dream dreams and the old shall see visions”-when both dreamers and visionaries are listened to rather than shouted down, we all benefit.

Rabbi Howard Siegel


© 2017 Beth Tikvah Synagogue, Richmond, BC, Canada
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