Baruch Hashem, Rav Weinberger has approved this version of my write-up of his drasha from this past Shabbos, parshas Shemini, on Shabbos morning. See here for past shiurim at YUTorah.org's website by Rav Weinberger both as Mashpia at YU and from the past 20 years. You can also click on one of the following links to subscribe to the shiurim: email, rss feed, podcast, or iTunes. Please note that these drashos will only be available online for one month. If you notice any mistakes, please let me know so I can correct it. If you are interested in a particular drasha that is no longer online, you can email me (right sidebar) and I'll send it to you IY"H, BL"N.
Rav Moshe Weinberger
Parshas Shemini 5775
Yiddishkeit for Every Jew
All of creation was waiting for “And it was, on the eighth day…” (Vayikra 9:1) in this week’s parsha. That was the long-awaited day when (ibid. 6) “the glory of Hashem will appear to you.” But suddenly, the joy of that day was marred by the “fire [that] went forth from before Hashem and consumed [Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s sons,] and they died before Hashem” (ibid. 10:2). The same fire that came from Heaven “and consumed the burnt offering and fats on the altar” (ibid. 9:24) then “went forth and consumed” Nadav and Avihu. The similarity between these psukim, only separated by one verse, is remarkable. What is the connection between them?
Because the brining of a “foreign fire which He had not commanded them” (ibid. 10:1) does not seem to fully explain the severity of Nadav and Avihu’s punishment, Chazal and the commentaries struggle to offer a number of explanations for the fire from Heaven which consumed them. According to some, it was because they make halachic decisions in Moshe’s presence and according to others, it was because they drank wine excessively before entering the Holy of Holies (Rashi on ibid. 2). According to them, the root cause of their deaths was not the fact that Nadav and Avihu each “took his fire-pan, put fire in them and placed incense upon it” (Vayikra 10:1). Rather, they were killed because of some unrelated sin.
But the Rashbam and Chizkuni explain that their sin was bringing their own fire before Hashem “had the chance” to cause a Heavenly fire to descend and consume the sacrifices. According to this explanation, the whole purpose of the day of the inauguration of the kohanim’s service in the Mishkan was to reveal Hashem’s presence in the Mishkan through the fire from Heaven which would consume the congregation’s sacrifices. By bringing a human fire before Hashem’s fire descended, Nadav and Avinhu prevented that full expression of G-d’s revelation in the Mishkan. In the language of the mekubalim, they created a separation between yesod Abah and yesod Imah.
But these commentaries do not explain the rest of the pasuk in which the Torah explains their sin. Each one “took his fire-pan, put fire in them and placed incense upon it.” Their explaination accounts for why it was a problem for Nadav and Avihu to bring a human fire before the revelation of Hashem’s fire. But they do not explain the Torah’s emphasis on the fact that they placed incense on this fire. Let us first understand more about the nature of this eighth day on which the kohanim brought sacrifices to Hashem and then we can suggest an approach which will explain the significance of the incense.
Moshe told the entire Jewish people (ibid. 9:6), “This is the thing that Hashem has commanded you to do and the glory of Hashem will appear to you.” The purpose of the day was (ibid. 4) “today Hashem is appearing to you.” The last time Hashem appeared to the entire Jewish people was at Sinai, when the pasuk (Shmos 24:17) says, “And the appearance of the glory of Hashem was like a consuming fire at the top of the mountain before the eyes of the Jewish people.” The Ramban (on ibid. 25:1) says that the purpose of the Mishkan, and later, the Beis Hamikdash, is to continue the Sinai experience throughout the generations. And the heros of the Sinai experience, who led the Jewish people to the mountain, were Moshe, Aharon, Nadav, and Avinhu (Shmos 24:1): “And He said to Moshe: ‘Ascend to Hashem, you, Aharon, Nadav, Avihu, and the seventy of the elders of Israel...’” Why were Aharon’s sons chosen for this special honor of going closer to Sinai than the rest of the Jewish people? Because they were destined to be inaugurated into the service in the Mishkan, the purpose of which is to continue to bring Hashem’s presence into the Jewish people just like on Sinai.
The connection between the revelation at Sinai and the Mishkan/Beis Hamikdash is also expressed through the fact that there are only three occasions on which communal peace offerings are brought: (1) at Sinai (Shmos 24:5); (2) on the day of the kohanim’s inauguration into the Mishkan’s service in this weeks’ parsha (Vayikra 9:4); and (3) throughout the generations on Shavuos (Vayikra 23:19), the anniversary of the day Hashem gave us the Torah on Sinai. The connection between these days is clear. Each of them represents a joining of the world above and the world below. That is why a communal peace offering is brought. The significance of a peace offering is that it is consumed jointly by Heaven, the kohanim, and the owner of the offering. Because these three occasions represent a direct encounter between the entire Jewish people and Hashem, it is appropriate to bring a joint offering which is “consumed” both by Hashem above and his children below on each of these days.
Perhaps based on the above we can understand the sin of Nadav and Avihu and how it relates to the incense they brought. As we said above, Nadav and Avihu were not with the rest of the Jewish people at Sinai. They came closer to the mountain than everyone else and were “cut off” from regular Jews. The pasuk says regarding Nadav, Avinhu and the other elders (Shmos 24:10-11), “And they perceived the G-d of Israel… and upon the nobles of Israel He did not lay a hand and they saw G-d…” But they were not the only ones who perceived Hashem at Sinai. As we quoted earlier: “And the appearance of the glory of Hashem was like a consuming fire at the top of the mountain before the eyes of the Jewish people.” The rest of the Jewish people also experienced a revelation of G-d.
It is possible, however, that because Nadav and Avihu were cut off from the average Jews, they may not have realized that Hashem considered the entire Jewish people worthy of revelation. They might have thought that such a direct encounter with G-d was reserved for “the nobles of Israel” like themselves and the elders.
It may not have occurred to Nadav and Avihu that the “proletariat,” the average Jews, the “riff raff,” were capable or worthy of receiving Hashem’s presence. It could be that when the whole Jewish people witnessed Hashem’s revelation through the fire on the altar (Vayikra 9:24), “the entire nation saw, sang praises, and fell on their faces,” Nadav and Avihu might have seen this as extremely problematic. Perhaps that is why, in the next verse (ibid. 10:1), they ran to bring incense into the Holy of Holies.
What is the significance and purpose of incense? Whenever there is a direct Divine revelation, Hashem commands us to create a cloud around that revelation using incense, as the pasuk (Vayikra 16:2) says, “in a cloud [of incense] I will appear above the [ark] cover.” The smoke created by the burning of the incense creates a fog around Hashem’s revelation, obscuring it as an expression of modesty.
Nadav and Avihu could not imagine that the entire Jewish people were actually supposed to experience that which the pasuk says, “the entire nation saw, sang praises, and fell on their faces.” They therefore ran to burn incense to create a cloud of concealment around that direct revelation to prevent those they thought were not worthy of experiencing it further. They may have viewed that direct revelation as a lack of honor toward Heaven.
Because they were separated from average Jews at Sinai and did not realize that Hashem intended that they too experience a direct encounter with Hashem. They did not realize that Hashem wants not only a direct relationship with the tzadikim and scholars, but also a direct connection with the lowest Jews, from the wood choppers to the water drawers (Devarim 29:10).
But this was a mistake. That is why Moshe explained to Aharon after Nadav and Avihu’s deaths (Vayikra 10:3): “This is what Hashem spoke [when He said], ‘I will be sanctified through those close to Me and before the entire nation I will be glorified.” A direct relationship and revelation of Hashem is not only for the “nobles of Israel” and “those close to Me” like Moshe, Aharon, Nadav, and Avihu. It is for “the entire nation.” Yiddishkeit is not a spectator’s sport in which we watch the tzadikim from afar and gaze in awe at how close they are to Hashem. We value the tzadikim and scholars, drink up every word they teach, and follow their leadership, but they do not have a monopoly on closeness with Hashem. Yiddishkeit and connection is for every Jew. No one should write themselves or other Jews off as beyond the pale of Yiddishkeit.
This erev Pesach, as Seder night was falling, our people lost one of the greatest tzadikim and poskim of this generation, Rav Shmuel Halevi Wosner, zt’l, who lived over 100 years. Rav Wosner was known to assiduously avoid any political affiliation or controversy. Every single Jew was equal in his eyes. He fielded questions from every type of Jew, whether religious or secular, Ashkenazi or Sefardi, national-religious or chareidi. He viewed every Jew as equal in the eyes of Hashem. As the Chozeh of Lublin, zy’a, said about Reb Asher Yeshaya of Ropshitz, zy’a, years before the latter died on erev Pesach, “He is a beautiful Pesach sacrifice.” Rav Wosner is a also a beautiful Pesach sacrifice. We can only pray that, as Rashi (on Bamidbar 20:1) says, the death of this tzadik will bring an atonement for our nation.
Just as Rav Wosner valued every Jew equally, we know that Hashem desires a direct relationship and encounter with every single Jew, no matter whether he is of the “nobles of Israel” or is of the “wood choppers and water drawers.” May all of us merit to internalize this message never write ourselves off from working to draw ourselves closer and closer to Hashem.
Click here to get Dixie Yid in your e-mail Inbox or here to "follow" me on Twitter.