2000This D'var Torah was prepared by Michelle Wasserman, a member of Hillel's 1999/2000 Board of Directors and a student at the University of California, San Diego. It was initially presented at the 2000 Schusterman Hillel International Lay Leadership Conference.
Renaissance Role Models
"Sons of High Priest Commit Minor Infraction. Internally Burn to Death: External Bodies Left Untouched." It reads like a headline for the National Enquirer. Even for the Torah the deaths of Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu in this week's parasha, Shemini, are sensational. Their crime: they decide to make an incense offering to God at an inappropriate time, presenting "alien fire" to God. Their punishment: God sends flames up their noses and burns them to death. God explains his actions by saying ambiguously, "I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me, thus I will be honored before the entire people." Aaron remains silent. Their cousins remove their tunics and their bodies, untouched by the flames; Aaron and his sons are forbidden to mourn.
On a literal level these deaths are hard to explain. These are not common men attempting to destroy the hierarchy of the priesthood; these are Aaron's sons. They are actually fulfilling one of their duties, the daily offering of incense. Their deaths are violent and painful, and God seems to say that through this violence he has been honored. If this is the case, sanctification from God is a dangerous thing.
In Judaism, God is both merciful and wrathful, but always just. Accordingly sages throughout the ages have tried to rationalize these seemingly empty deaths. The sin was bringing "alien fire" before God. Midrash claims that this offering came as the last in a series of selfish acts. The pride involved in the act made the offering alien. There is another suggestion that perhaps the brothers were intoxicated, making the offering an abomination to God, and leading into the next section of the portion that forbids the drinking of alcohol before entering the Tabernacle.
Of all the inconsistencies in the portion, the greatest is the preservation of the brothers' bodies. After their strange demise, the parasha relates how the cousins of Nadav and Avihu "carried them by their tunics to the outside of the camp." The fire did not burn their clothing or, as Midrash claims, their bodies.
Oftentimes what does not make sense on a literal level does make sense on a metaphorical level. This part of the Torah portion leads to a more metaphorical interpretation. Fire is a universal symbol for passion. Fire appears in two contexts in this story: first as the fire the brothers send up to God and second as the fire that consumes them on the inside. The passion that burns inside of these two men is a divine one, centered on God. Divine passion both fills them and kills them. They first, however, offer their own fire up to God. This fire is "alien," or alienating. The two brothers separate themselves from the rest of the people and concentrate their passions on God. The brothers cultivate private passion for God, one that eventually consumes them.
Looking to the context of the whole Torah portion, in Shemini God establishes precedent for the Israelites. The Tabernacle is set up, the rules for priests explained and the laws of Kashrut delineated. Priests and sacrifices served an important communal purpose for the Israelites. Through sacrifice the Israelites atoned for both individual and societal sins, assuring the smooth function of the society. There is no room in such a system for Priests consumed with a private passion for God. The Priestly role cannot be separated from the people. God's ambiguous comment explains this, and makes Nadav and Avihu negative examples of Priestly behavior. God says "I will be sanctified through those who are nearest me, thus I will be honored before the entire people." Those nearest to God, the Priests, must sanctify God only in the communal context. They cannot alienate themselves and offer God a passion that separates them from the community. Priests must function as spiritual intermediaries, and through this action God will have honor They must teach the Israelites to connect to their God and to their heritage, and in doing so they unite the entire community and glorify God.
Nadav and Avihu failed by removing themselves from the important community capacity as teachers and role models. The Jewish people still need leaders to connect the past with the present and to serve as positive examples of behavior.
In a few moments Richard Joel will speak about the Renaissance Covenant that is creating a new burst of Jewish life and Jewish consciousness across campuses and the Jewish community. This process of renaissance involves claiming our Jewishness with both pride and a pluralistic attitude. I would like to add another element to these principles, however. Jewish renaissance among college students cannot happen without Jewish role models.
It is not enough to create programming that gives students a sense of history. Students live in campuses among their peers. Hillel staff members may be the only Jewish adult role models in their lives. Everyone in this room has found a Jewish identity and has discovered a way to live both secularly and Jewishly and to contribute to the greater community. Everyone in this room gives generously to Jewish students. There is a difference between an active and a passive presence, however. Students are the future Jewish leaders; they need to know what the present ones look like.
Students wish to have careers and work with the Jewish community, what could be more helpful than meeting someone who can talk to them about doing both? Students have career aspirations, intellectual goals, what could be more useful than an internship or a shadowing opportunity? In some way offer students a connection. All of you give so much to make sure that the Jewish campus community exists, but we need to add the element of continuity.
Lay leaders should know student leaders. As a student I encourage you to meet those you work for.
-Have dinner with a student.
-Have a professional workshop or discussion.
-Hold a planning meeting between the two groups of leaders so that the students get to participate in the continuity of their campus communities.
-Open not just your schedules for meetings, but also your lives.
Alienation both in the Torah and today destroys continuity and community. We cannot afford to alienate students from Jewish role models, not if we want the principles of Jewish renaissance to truly take hold.