Parashat Shemini
By Rabbi Tirtzah Israel, Hebrew Seminary alumna & Assistant Professor of Spirituality

This week’s Torah portion Shemini is the third story in a series of continuous narration following parshiot Vayikra and Tzav in the book of Vayikra.

First, the book of Vayikra opens with Moses being called by G-D from the newly built Mishkan (Tent of Meetings).  Moses was told to instruct the Children of Israel concerning the rituals for animal sacrifice and altar offerings.  Aaron along with his two sons, Nadab and Abihu begin the process of inauguration into the priesthood as Aaron prepares to take on the highest ranking position as Kohen HaGadol.

The second parashah, Tzav (צַ֤ו) God’s instructions are directed a bit more for the priests as Moses is told by G-D to command Aaron and his sons in the completion of the five rituals of slaughter for the altar offerings (Burnt, Meal, Guilt, Sin and Thanksgiving-Peace offering).

As the narrative in Tzav focuses more on the concept of completion, Aaron and his sons complete the ritual for ordination into the priesthood as Aaron, Moses’ brother becomes the Kohen HaGadol while his two sons Nadab and Abihu enters the priesthood as young priests.

In Tzav, we read about the final commandment set forth by G-D through Moses  for the newly ordained priests to remain at the entrance of the Tent of Meetings for seven days and nights as chapter 8; verse 33 reads, “You shall not leave the entrance of the Tent of Meetings for seven days, until the day when your days of inauguration are completed; for you shall be inaugurated for a seven-day period.”

What an exciting time this must have been for the newly ordained priests.  I remember days before my rabbinic ordination.  I was nervous, exhausted, relieved and excited all at the same time.  I was confident in my resolve in being a rabbi, yet unsure how my future would unfold as I met the challenges that lie ahead for me.

I was appreciative for all the long hours my teachers dedicated to me that ensured my success; even to the extent of opening their homes to me for individual tutelage.  And, of course, my mentor Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer of Blessed Memory, I am grateful for the (seemingly) thousands of hours of one-on-one teaching provided, especially his focus on art of healing using Chesed as a tool for opening sacred pathways during meditation.

As I read through the two parshiot, Vayikra and Tzav prior to reviewing Shemini, I found myself lost in thought about these three men who were at the beginning of their tenure as I once was and at the threshold of new beginnings and experiences as teachers, healers and leaders in their community.  As we read later in Shemini, they all were met with mega-challenges and harsh realities that altered their perception of what they thought the priesthood would be about.

I know that our teacher and rabbi of Blessed Memory, would hope that as we read through the text of these stories that we would look slightly beyond the mere words on the page to find a deeper and divinely inspired teachings that “connected the dots” found in the Torah. I found myself meditating over various sections of the text and heard the quiet voice of my mentor encouraging me.

In the Kabbalah, the number seven holds the mystical meaning for completion and wholeness. There are many examples in the Torah, however I will only use a few examples here.

Found in the first creation story G-d “completed” the mystery of the act of creating the heavens and earth in seven days.  At the end of this divine act, G-d Blessed the seventh day and sanctified it (Bereshit 2:3-4).

In the Noah story, G-d again gave orders, this time for Noah to place seven pairs of animals and birds into the Ark to keep seeds alive upon the face of the earth.  Then Noah was given only seven more days before the big flood would arrive that would “blot-out” all known existence upon the earth (Bereshit 7:10).  It is taught in Midrash Tanchuma that during these seven days prior to the massive flood, G-d mourned for his creatures that he created.

I would be certainly remiss, if I did not mention the seven lower Sefirot representing energy centers of divine lights beginning with Chesed for Kindness; Gevurah as Strict Judgement; T’feret for Balance; Hod as Humble and Thankfulness; Netzach as Endurance; Yesod as Foundation, and of course Shechinah representing Accessibility and Receptivity.  They are the seven transformers of Divine energy that maintain the continuous flow of creation into the physical realm.

I remember in one of his lectures, our teacher of Blessed Memory taught that the seven Sefirot embodied the inner world through which the Divine Creator descends from the most inner recesses and most hidden into revelation.  Causing the undulating and unfolding layering of creation to spark into the physical world, all to benefit his creatures.

These seven Sefirot serves as the bridge that connects the two realms that emanates from the incomprehensible and unknowable realm into the knowable realm of existence; like a spiritual protecting buffer between the two realms because we know no person can directly experience God and live.  In the case for Nadab and Abihu, they encountered the Divine more directly as parasha Shemini indicates, which ultimately cost them their souls.

Parasha Shemini begins with the eighth day of the inauguration for Aaron and his sons into the priesthood.  And now, after following the commandment to remain at the entrance of the Mishkan for seven days, they were elevated to one day higher and one sacred level above completion and wholeness. The newly ordained priests have earned the privilege of being near (קְרַ֤ב the root peh, resh vet) G-D.  In fact, now the entire assembly has been granted the privilege of standing near before G-D:                                                                                         וַיִּקְרְבוּ֙ כָּל־הָ֣עֵדָ֔ה וַיַּֽעַמְד֖וּ לִפְנֵ֥י יְהֹוָֽה

However, let’s not forget that with this privilege of nearness to G-D comes great responsibility, accountability and behavioral expectations.

One of the many teachings reminds all of us of our responsibility for spiritual mindfulness for ourselves, spiritual mindfulness towards each other and for G-D.  As we are all made in the image of G-D, our behavior towards one another is also experienced by G-D as the vibrational energies from below (us) impacting and affecting the Upper Realm in Sympathetic Vibrations.

Moses tells Aaron to “come near” in chapter 9:v7 and once again we see in the Hebrew the word using the root peh resh vet for nearness as Aaron performs the offerings that atones for himself and the people.  This is another indication that Aaron and his sons were elevated to a station that was near and closer to the Divine.  The altar offerings could only be performed by a priest who had earned the station of nearness to G-D.  There was no comprising on this principle regardless of what others thought.

After completing the responsibilities of ritual slaughtering and altar offerings both Moses and Aaron blessed the people and the Presence of the Divine appeared before them… As the words lifted themselves from the page during my meditation, I can imagine the  glorious experience and privilege it must have been to be in the kavod of the Divine.

But of course, the drama doesn’t end there.  The young new priests Nadab and Abihu acted in their zest and naïveté or maybe they wanted to do something new and different, at any rate we will never know.  For the young priests brought aish zarah, (אֵ֣שׁ זָרָ֔ה) that had not been commanded and they died before G-d having lost their elevated privileged position of closeness.  Obviously, Nadab and Abihu lacked the spiritual consciousness within themselves that was required of any person holding a position of nearness to G-d as expected of the priesthood.

In addition, we are reminded of the consequences for our behavior, private thoughts and actions especially when others depend on upon the integrity of our hearts.  Before we can be accountable to others in our station, we must first be accountable to ourselves.  Why? Because the Shechinah is nearby – bridging us to the Upper Realm.

The Torah teaches lessons within layers of lessons like a hologram that grants multiple opportunities for each of us to look first within ourselves at our intentions.  We all stand at the entrance of the universal Mishkan.  None of us can afford to offer aish zarah which has not been commanded of us.  And how do we change the tides of aish zarah that may surround us?  By seeking and finding the inner peace and kindness that dwells within us, already.  As each of us seek to raise our sacred station by actualizing the inner peace and essence for kindness within, not only do we change ourselves, but also change the environment and people too.