Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Words of Torah: Barbara Cohen

One of Five N'shei Mitzvah @ Congregation Albert:  On April 21, Parshat Shemini, five extraordinary women were called to the Torah as N'shei Mitzvah.  These five women - Susan Freed, Naomi Findley, Barbara Cohen, Debbie Kapp, and Anne McGoey - had studied and prepared for months to reach this day.

N'shei Mitzvah is an adult celebration of learning.  These five women had chosen to affirm their commitment to their Jewish identity and reaffirm their responsibility for performing the mitzvot of Jewish life.

Abq Jew was pleased to be among the congregants who observed and participated in this simcha, and immediately asked to publish the Divrei Torah of these five special women here.

As the Festival of Shavuot approaches, Abq Jew is honored to publish these words - one Dvar Torah per day - to once again demonstrate that "the Torah is not in Heaven."  The Torah is with and within each of us and all of us!


The Torah Words of Barbara Cohen
Copyright © 2012 Barbara Cohen     Used By Permission     All Rights Reserved

Sh’mini: A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside an Enigma

Shabbat Shalom!  You may notice that we also read Sh’mini last Shabbat.  Because Reform Jews celebrate Pesach according to Torah instruction while Conservative and Orthodox Jews in the United States add an extra day (which was last Shabbat), Conservative and Orthodox Jews are reading Sh’mini today.  Reform Jews read Sh’mini again today in order to stay on the same Torah reading cycle as the traditional congregations.  Today we read from Leviticus chapters 10 and 11. Chapter 10 tells the dramatic story of the tragedy that befell Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, on the eighth and final day of the dedication ceremonies for the Mishkan, the Tent of Meeting, while Chapter 11 describes the laws of kashrut.

In 1939, during the first month of the war against Hitler, Winston Churchill spoke on a BBC radio broadcast, and described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma…”  The same description applies very well to our Torah portion, Sh’mini.

It is in Leviticus chapter 10, the story of Nadav and Avihu, that we find a riddle, a mystery and an enigma.  Nadav and Avihu are in their first week on the job as priests in the newly constructed Tabernacle. They, along with all the Israelites, have just witnessed the Presence of God, and divine fire has ignited the alter fire and consumed the sacrifices.  Nadav and Avihu then take their fire pans and put what is generally translated as “alien fire” in them.  They offer this alien fire to God, who has not asked for it, and the two young men are immediately consumed by divine fire.   Moses offers some words of comfort to Aaron, and Aaron is silent.  Moses instructs Aaron and his two remaining sons not to mourn, but all the people are permitted to mourn.  God then speaks directly to Aaron, instructing him and his sons not to drink any intoxicant when they enter the Tent of Meeting, on penalty of death.  Moses gives Aaron and his remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, further instructions on eating certain sacrifices.  As Chapter 10 closes, Moses becomes angry with Eleazar and Itamar because they have burned the goat of sin offering rather than eat it in the sanctuary to remove the sins of the community.  Aaron responds on behalf of his sons, telling Moses that in light of the tragedy of Nadav and Avihu’s death, God would not have approved of his eating the sin offering of the people, and Moses agrees.

First, let’s look at the riddle.  In Chapter 10, verse 16, Moses inquires about the goat of sin offering.  The Hebrew text says “v’eit s’eyr hachatat darosh darash Moshe”, which means:  “Regarding the goat of the sin offering, Moses inquired insistently…”  The words darosh darash are identical words in the Torah, each spelled dalet , raesh, shin.  They are translated as “inquired insistently"[1]  or “diligently inquired.”[2]  A note in some editions of the Torah tells us that these two words are the exact halfway mark of all the words in the Torah.[3]   Darosh falls in the first half, darash begins the second half of the Torah.[4]   Of course, Leviticus is also the middle book of the Torah.  And according to Rabbi Laura Kaplan, the Torah contains 77 doubled words, words that are repeated for emphasis, and darosh darash is the middle set of those 77 pairs of words.[5]   It hardly seems likely that the words “darosh darash” appear in the exact center of the Torah by accident.  So the riddle posed by our Torah portion is why are these two words, diligently inquired or insistently inquired, placed here?  We will come back to this.

Now to the mystery.  Why did Nadav and Ahivu die?  The Torah text only tells us that they brought a strange or alien fire within the Holy of Holies that God had not commanded of them.  Rabbis and sages for millennia have debated the nature of the fault that caused God to take their lives, and yet the crime remains obscure.  Therein lies the mystery:  how could a sin so grave be so elusive?

Some believe that Nadav and Avihu had the best of motives;  they were so moved by the Divine Presence and the fire sent by God to bless humankind and sanctify the Mishkan that they sought to offer something similar back to God.[6]   Under this view, even though they acted out of religious passion, they failed to follow God’s law by bringing fire that was not commanded.[7]   It follows that their death warns us that halacha, the religious law, is the only way to draw close to God; unrestrained religious passion is dangerous.  We may find their punishment harsh, but ritual mistakes were very serious in biblical thought.[8]  And to compound the ritual crime, perhaps they approached too close to the Holy of Holies; as we also see in our Haftarah portion, crimes of trespass on the sacred are immediately fatal.[9]

In Rashi’s view, Nadav and Avihu must have been drunk; why else would God warn immediately Aaron and his remaining sons never to drink wine when they enter the Tent of Meeting or they will die?[10]   If this was their crime, then we learn that we cannot lose control of our focus when we worship God.

Still other Rabbis suggest that perhaps their crime occurred earlier.  On Mount Sinai, Nadav and Avihu accompanied the elders of Israel who gazed upon God; all seventy of these elders perished by fire.[11]  

Or perhaps their crime was arrogance.  A midrash suggests that Nadav and Avihu were impatient to see Moses and Aaron die so that they could become the leaders.[12]   A different midrash claims the two sons of Aaron refused to marry because they did not think any women were worthy of them.[13]   Some commentators see arrogance in their decision to offer their “alien fire” without consulting their teachers and religious authorities, Moses and Aaron.[14] 

Perhaps only those present 3300 years ago at the dedication of the Mishkan understood the gravity of the sin that caused Nadav and Avihu to die.  Or perhaps not even they understood. In any event, the reason that God’s fire consumed them remains a mystery to us.

Immediately following the mysterious deaths, God instructs Aaron that the priests are not to drink alcoholic beverages, and then Moses instructs Aaron and his remaining sons how and where to eat the sacrifices.  They are to eat the remains of the meal offering by the altar; the breast and thigh and fat offerings, which are the people’s sacrifice of well-being,[15] are to be shared with their families and eaten in any clean place.   Then Moses gets upset about the goat of purgation offering, the offering that is to remove the guilt of the community. 

And that brings us to our enigma.   Although Moses does not seem to have given clear instructions regarding this offering, he is angry with Elazar and Itamar when he discovers that the goat offering was completely burnt rather than eaten in a holy place.  A very cryptic conversation between Moses and Aaron ensues, in which Aaron asks rhetorically whether God would have approved had he eaten the purgation offering, after the tragedy that befell him, and Moses, who had been so agitated a moment before, agrees.[16] 

Commentators have offered a variety of explanations for this conversation in which Aaron reassures a very troubled Moses with a short and obscure response.  One explanation of Aaron’s response is that Aaron, Elazar and Itamar were in mourning, and therefore they could not eat this particular sacrifice – a point that Moses apparently overlooked but Aaron remembered.[17]   Others suggest that the death of Nadav and Avihu might have polluted the sanctuary, but Aaron and his sons were instructed in verse 7 not to leave the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, lest they die, so they could not eat the goat offering in the holy place.[18] 

Despite the efforts of Rabbis and sages to explain Sh’mini, the parsha contains a puzzling tale of tragedy that interrupts the lengthy instructions given by God to Moses, to give to the people of Israel.  We are left with the riddle of the words “darosh darash” at the midpoint of the Torah, the mystery of the reason for the death of Nadav and Avihu, and the enigma of the cryptic conversation between Moses and Aaron about the goat offering.

I believe that the story of the journey of the Ark to Jerusalem that begins in our Haftarah for the week can help to explain the puzzles of Sh’mini.  The Haftarah, from Second Samuel, 6:1 – 7:17, tells a parallel story to the parsha, simpler but no less tragic.  King David is leading joyous procession to take the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem to establish a religious center for the Jewish people.  The Ark is being transported on a new ox-cart from the home of Avinadav (an interesting combination of the names Avihu and Nadav), where it has been stored after its liberation from the Philistines, by his sons Uzzah and Achio.  At a certain point on the trip, the oxen nearly upset the cart and so Uzzah reaches out to steady the Ark.  God is furious with Uzzah for his error or his disrespect and strikes him dead on the spot.  The Haftarah tells us that David was distressed and named the spot where Uzzah died “Peretz-Uzzah,” which means breach or strike against Uzzah.[19]

Second Samuel also tells us that David terrified and abandoned his plan to take the Ark to Jerusalem; instead he stored the Ark for three months at the home of a non-Israelite.   When David learned that the non-Israelite’s family had been blessed by God for storing the Ark, he resumed the joyful journey to take the Ark to Jerusalem.[20] 

We have a mystery here – why did God kill Uzzah?—that mirrors the mystery of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu.  In both stories, the young men who died came too close to something sacred, but the men all seem to have good intentions and so we feel the punishment was perhaps too harsh.

Luckily, we get more insight into the mysterious death of Uzzah from First Chronicles 15:1-15, which tells the story of David’s second attempt at taking the Ark to Jerusalem from a different perspective.[21]  In First Chronicles, we learn that David has realized his error on the first attempt to take the Ark to Jerusalem: transporting the Ark on an ox cart was wrong.[22]   David now says, “It is not proper to carry the Ark of God except the Levites, for the Eternal chose them to carry the Ark of God and serve . . . forever.”[23]   And so on the second attempt, David summons the priests and Levites and asks them to prepare (sanctify) themselves and bring the Ark of the God of Israel to the place he has prepared for it.[24]   And David admits his earlier mistake: “For from the beginning, [when] you were not [the bearers], Adonai, our God, made a breach in us, for we did not seek God according to the ordinance.”[25]  

With the help of First Chronicles to fill in additional details of the Haftarah story, we learn that the death of Uzzah deeply troubled David, and he sought diligently (remember “darosh darash”) to figure out what had caused the tragedy.  When he figured out that the error was his, he took great care to correct it and to teach to “all Israel” the proper way to transport the Ark “as Moses had commanded according to the word of the Eternal.”[26] 

If we reflect these elements back on the more puzzling story in Sh’mini, we can imagine that the deaths of Nadav and Avihu must also have troubled Moses and Aaron very deeply.  Quite possibly they wondered if they were a sign that the dedication of the Mishkan, the tabernacle, was unsuccessful.  God had promised Moses that God’s presence would rest amongst the people of Israel once the tabernacle was constructed;[27] perhaps the deaths meant that God had reconsidered this promise or the tabernacle was not satisfactory.  We can see now why this story comes in the very center of the Torah: because its resolution is pivotal to the story of the people of Israel.  It is exactly here, at the midpoint of the Torah, where we learn whether God’s covenant with Moses will be fulfilled.  The first half of the Torah has been the story of a people whom God has chosen but who have had some difficulty upholding their part of the deal.  Here in the center of the Torah, we – and Moses and Aaron – will find out if God will dwell with the people of Israel and thus how the story will continue.

Our riddle, “darosh darash,” marks this turning point in the Torah and in the story of the people of Israel, and it gives us the key to understanding the mystery of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu:  diligently seek, insistingly inquire.  Diligent inquiry is how David discovered that it was his own mistake, his failure of leadership that caused the death of Uzzah.  And diligent inquiry is how Moses and Aaron must approach their leadership of the people of Israel in order for this huge venture to succeed. 

Retrospectively, it appears that neither Moses nor Aaron was properly supervising the new, inexperienced priests Nadav and Avihu when they offered their incense with “alien fire.”  When Moses “insistently inquires” about the goat sacrifice to expiate the sins of all the people, we see that he, like King David, has done some soul-searching since the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, and that he now understands that the well-being and the very life of the people of Israel, and of those who serve the people, depends on attentive and diligent leadership.

So we can see Moses’ “diligent inquiry” or “insistent inquiry” as the lesson he learned from the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. For the people of Israel to become the Jewish nation, to thrive and to serve God, its leaders must do more than simply announce the received laws from God. They must also exercise true leadership; they must be pro-active, diligently inquire, insistently ask questions, and take responsibility for teaching public servants how to carry out their duties.

In the enigmatic conversation between Moses and Aaron that closes Chapter 10, we can see that Aaron has also learned a lesson about leadership.  Aaron too, has done some inquiry and searching, and has drawn his own conclusions about the halacha – the law – that applies to eating the sacrifices.  As Rashi explained, the general law is that those in mourning cannot eat the sanctified meat.  However, Moses instructed Aaron that that this general rule (which actually appears later in the Torah)[28] does not apply to the special sacrifices for the dedication of the Mishkan.  For this reason, Moses was angry that the priests did not eat the goat offering.  But Aaron had inquired even more deeply and recognized that the goat offering for the sins of the people of Israel was a sacrifice to be done regularly on Rosh Chodesh and not part of the dedication ceremony; Aaron therefore concluded that the goat sacrifice was subject to the general law that one in mourning may not eat it.[29]   In Rashi’s analysis, this is the logic underlying Aaron’s response to Moses, “Had I eaten the purgation offering today, would God have approved?”[30]

In his cryptic conversation with Moses, we see that Aaron diligently sought to perform – and to have his sons perform -- the goat sacrifice properly.  Aaron, like Moses, and like David in the parallel Haftarah story, has been inspired by the tragic deaths to become a more careful and more diligent leader, and to instruct his remaining sons more attentively.   The Torah tells us that when Moses heard Aaron’s analysis regarding the goat sacrifice, Moses approved.  Most likely Moses also approved of Aaron’s growth in initiative and leadership, and of Aaron’s own, independent, insistent inquiry to be certain that he and his sons were properly performing their new jobs. 

Like so many other chapters of Jewish history, Leviticus chapter 10 opens with a tragedy.  But as we work through the riddle, the mystery and the enigma, we see that it closes with hope for the future of the people of Israel.  The construction of the Mishkan has been a success; the presence of God has come to dwell among the people of Israel, and the people celebrate through their tears.  The shocking and tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu have motivated both Moses and Aaron to inquire insistently, to analyze diligently, and to become more conscientious mentors and more careful leaders.


  1. Rabbi Menachem Davis (ed.), Interlineal Chumash, Mesorah Publications, Ltd., Leviticus 10:16.
  2. J.H. Hertz (ed)., The Pentateuch and Hartorahs, Soncino Press, London Second Edition 1960.
  3. Rabbi Menachem Davis (ed.), Interlineal Chumash, Mesorah Publications, Ltd., Leviticus 10:16.
  4. “In the innermost Place of Torah there is Silence” by Rabbi Victor Reinstein,
  5. Laura Duhan Kaplan,,2008.
  6. Rav Alex Israel, Parshat Shemini: Death in the Sanctuary
  7. Id., Rabbi Menachem Davis (ed.), Interlineal Chumash, Mesorah Publications, Ltd., notes to Leviticus 10:1.
  8. Adele Berlin and Marc Brettler, Eds., The Jewish Study Bible, Oxford University Press (2004), Leviticus 10:1-3 notes, p. 227.
  9. Id.
  10. Elie Wiesel, “Nadab and Abihu: A Story of Fire and Silence,” in  Wise Men and their Tales, Schocken Books, 2003.
  11. Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen, “Shemini”,
  12. Elie Wiesel, “Nadab and Abihu: A Story of Fire and Silence,” in  Wise Men and their Tales, Schocken Books, 2003.
  13. Id.
  14. Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen, “Shemini”,; Rav Alex Israel, Parshat Shemini: Death in the Sanctuary
  15. Leviticus 10:12-15.
  16. Leviticus 10:16-20.
  17. See Rav Ezra Bick, Parshat Shemini,
  18. Women’s Torah Commentary, Sh’mini, p. 621.
  19. Rav Alex Israel, Parshat Shemini: Death in the Sanctuary ; Adele Berlin and Marc Brettler, Eds., The Jewish Study Bible, Oxford University Press (2004), Second Samuel 6:8 note c, p. 520.
  20. Second Samuel, 6:9-15.
  21. The expansion of the story of David’s journey to Jerusalem with the Ark in First Chronicles is pointed out by Rav Alex Israel, Parshat Shemini: Death in the Sanctuary
  22. See Adele Berlin and Marc Brettler, Eds., The Jewish Study Bible, Oxford University Press (2004), Numbers 7:9 (Levites must transport sacred objects).
  23. First Chronicles 15: 2, as translated by Judaica Press, from
  24. First Chronicles 15: 11-12, as translated by Judaica Press, from
  25. First Chronicles 15: 13, as translated by Judaica Press, from
  26. First Chronicles 15: 3, 15.
  27. Exodus 25:8.
  28. Deuteronomy 26:14
  29. Shemini with Rashi,, Leviticus 10:16,
  30. Leviticus 10:19.

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