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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Parashat Sh'mini - the Haftara

Parashat Sh’mini - the Haftara
2 Samuel 6:1 – 7:17
Reading date: 18th April 2009 – 24th Nisan 5769

Our highlighted Haftara Text
"But when they came to the threshing floor of Nachon, Uzzah reached out for the Ark of God and grasped it, for the oxen had stumbled. Adonai was incensed at Uzzah. And God struck him down on the spot for his indiscretion, and he died there beside the Ark of God." II Samuel 6: 6, 7

Belief can only have worth when it values human life.

The bulk of this week's relatively short parasha focuses on the rules of purity and sanctification. Chapter eleven lists those animals that are permitted to be eaten, forming the basis of the dietary rules of Kashrut.

In this parasha is the short account of the death of Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, when they offered 'alien' fire on the altar. The parallel to our Haftara is clear: Uzzah is also struck down by YHVH for touching the Ark. Curiously, the Ark was taken from the house of Avinadav, a combination of the names Avihu and Nadav. The installation of the Ark in Jerusalem also echoes the dedication of the Mishkan in Leviticus.

King David is trying to establish his authority and unify the tribes of Israel (in the north) and Judah (in the south). Besides political and national unity, David seeks to centralize religious life by moving the Ark to Jerusalem, David's new capital. Our haftara from the book of Second Samuel documents the transition of the Ark from a portable sanctuary to a fixed address. The move of YHVH's worship from a portable tent to a permanent house/shrine also marks a shift in the life of the people of Israel-- moving from the life of nomads to the fixed life of a nation/state of farmers.

Reading this story, I can't help but think of the excavations that we see taking place in the City of David, (outside what we call today the 'Old City’). According to Eilat Mazar, we may have found the foundations to David's palace.

The death of Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, is a tragedy. The story appears for the first time briefly in our parasha, and is referred to again several times (Lev. 16:1; Num. 3:4; Num. 26:61; I Chron. 24:2). It seems like Nadav and Avihu can't be mentioned without the reminder, 'who offered alien fire and died.' This cryptic narrative is problematic. Why did they die? Although some Rabbis tried to find some indication of wrongdoing on their part (either hubris, intoxication, or a disregard for protocol), although some argue that such an approach is akin to 'blaming the victim'. Others considered them blameless and righteous. When we compare the parallel story found in our haftara, the implication that they were innocent is supported: the Ark is being joyfully transported to Jerusalem, and when the oxen stumble, Uzzah reaches out to support the Ark from falling. Suddenly, tragedy strikes: Uzzah dies. Clearly here, Uzzah is blameless. Even if this was 'an indiscretion', his was an inadvertent act, without any of the possible motives attributed to Aaron's sons.

Both stories demonstrate that objects of holiness are dangerous, like high voltage wires. The message seems to be: don't fool around with religion! Earlier in Parashat Toldot we talked about the need to perform religious acts properly. There is no excuse for sloppiness, so it is disappointing to see so many committed enough to put up a mezuzah, but end up putting it up the wrong way, without the proper scroll, or without the proper blessing. But imagine if we were killed for putting on tefillin the wrong way!? That seems a little extreme.

The early Chasidic masters also promoted an approach that it the thought that counts, and there are many Chasidic stories of simple Jews who reached a higher level of holiness than those who performed the mitzvot with all the minutiae, because they had the right kavannah (intent). Since we are just concluding the holiday of Passover, let me share a famous story of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, after a particularly satisfying Seder is told in a dream that the Seder of Chaim the porter was loftier than his. After searching out this simple, unlearned Jew, Levi Yitzhak tries to find out what Chaim did that was so special?

"Rabbi, I'll tell you the truth. I heard that we are not allowed to drink vodka for eight days. So this morning I drank enough to last me for eight days. So of course I was sleepy, and I went to bed. When it was night-time my wife wakes me up and starts nagging me. She starts saying 'Chaim,' she says, 'why don't you make a Seder like all the other Jews?’

"So I said to her, what do you want from me? I'm an ignoramus, and my father before me was an ignoramus. All I know is this--that our fathers were in exile and YHVH took us out from the land of the gypsies and made us free. And now we're all in exile again, but YHVH will bring us out again, for sure!' Then I saw that on the table there were matza and wine and eggs, so I ate the matza and the eggs, and I drank up the wine. And then I was so exhausted that I had to go back to sleep."
So many of us get so involved in the minutiae of Passover, we are too exhausted to really focus on the main thing. Tradition in general has this danger. The Midrash (Tanhuma Beshalach 21) in fact has the Israelites complain that YHVH's rituals are just too dangerous, because of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu and Uzzah. The Midrash's rebuttal is that the both the Ark and the incense which appear to cause death in our two stories, are also sources of blessing and protection. I think this Midrash has a great truth. Traditional ritual can either be a source of meaning or life-threatening. The Rabbis reject the poisonous oleander and identify the 'thickly leaved boughs' for the lulav and etrog used on Sukkot as the sweet smelling myrtle. "Dracheha darchei noam, the Torah's ways are ways of pleasantness", they argue; the Torah is a source of life.

Every week we read of suicide bombers and worshippers killed in mosques. Religion today is too often used to justify or cause death; religion can only have worth when it values human life. We often don't consider our religion to be a 'life or death' issue, but this week's portion makes us ask: 'Are the religious ideas and rituals that we are engaged with life affirming?' Because if they aren't, they might be as dangerous as touching a high tension electric wire.

Shabbat Shalom

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