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April 12, 2015 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Shemini

After two weeks of Pesach, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

This week’s portion includes the story of Nadab and Abihu, two sons of Aaron who, after burning incense at the Tabernacle, “offered strange fire” (Lev. 10:1) before God and then die.

What did they do wrong?  What is this strange fire?  The Talmudic sages offer lots of homiletic explanations, some of which sound a bit like lashon hara (e.g. speculating that the two young priests were drunk).  On the other hand, Ibn Ezra gives a narrower halachic explanation, suggesting that they should have relied on the fire from heaven rather than putting fire on the alter themselves.  This explanation reminds me of something I read in Richard Elliot Friedman’s Torah commentary about a decade ago: that to the ancient mind, ritual precision was really, really important.

At first glance, it may seem that the past is another country.  On the other hand, I have just been through a week of ritual precision; I devoted my kitchen and half of my living room to eating and food preparation (and thus to chametz-free life) while I merely checked for chametz in the non-food half of my living room.  When I went from the non-food half to the food half I washed my hands, just in case there were chametz crumbs in the non-food half that might spread into the food half.  Although I’m sure many people didn’t think of this, on the other hand many people keep stringencies I don’t.  In any event, Pesach’s emphasis on ritual precision seems to fit nicely with this week’s portion.

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