Summary : Parashat Shemini begins on the eighth day of the ceremony to ordain the priests and to consecrate the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Moses instructs Aaron to bring the animals and flour to be offered to God , and Aaron offers the sacrifices as Moses commanded, concluding with blessing the people. Then it narrates the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, two of Aaron’s sons, who also offer their own sacrifice.
The parasha concludes with the details of all of the different types of animals which may be eaten (kosher) —mammals, fish, and fowl, and with some of the laws of purity
The 4 phrases (or words) enumerated in the text above are essential to the Midrashic process. Each of them 'invites' multiple possible meanings and therefore expansive explorations. The 4 phrases or words are :
1. They took (va'yikchu | ויקחו )
2. Strange or alien or foreign fire (aish zarah | אש זרה)
3. Which G-d had not commanded (asher lo tzivah otam | אשר לא צוה אתם)
4. And there came forth a fire from before or in G-d Presence (va'tezeh aish mi'lifnei adonai | ותצא אש מלפני ה׳)
Meaning Making Starts: Causality and the Search for Why?
From the earliest commentators (including perhaps the Torah itself) the tragedy must 'mean' something. Meaning making begins with 'why', with teleological theories that support Divine justice and benevolence. Here the Rabbinic tradition offers a few examples of sins or crimes that deserved this death penalty. A few are:
1. They didn't honor Aharon and Moses by imagining or thinking about when they would replace them
2. They made an halakhic decision in the presence of their teacher
3. They entered the holy place intoxicated
4. They didn't speak or collaborate with one another (each acted in isolation)
5. Their exuberance got the better of them and they entered the precinct of the holy without permission
Vayikra Rabbah is a midrash on the Book of Leviticus containing sermons based on the opening verses of the book's sections. It consists largely of materials from older works like Genesis Rabbah, Pesikta d’Rav Kahana, and the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds. It was compiled sometime between the fifth and seventh centuries.
Sifra Col. 92, no. 32
Upon beholding the fire of divine approval immediately preceding their action (Lev. 9:23-24), they joyfully arose "to add love to love," and "each took his censor" and "took" refers to joy...
Philo (c. 44 CE, Alexandria) "they died before the Lord"
[Nadav and Avihu] were not seized by a wild beast, but were taken up by a rush of fire unquenchable, by an undying splendor, since in sincerity they cast aside sloth and delay and consecrated their zeal, hot and fiery, flesh-consuming and swiftly moving, to piety. [This fire] was "strange" (lev 10:1) to earthly existence, since it belonged to the realm of God...Wafted by a favorable breeze and carried the heights of heaven, they were passed away, like a wholly burnt offering [from the Tabernacle] into celestial splendor.--Philo, On Dreams
It is thus that the priests Nadav and Avihu die in order that
they may live, receiving an incorruptible life in exchange for mortal existence, and being translated from the created to the uncreated. Over them a proclamation is uttered betokening immortality, "They died before the Lord" (Lev. 10:2), that is, "They came to life," for a corpse may not come into God's presence.--Philo, On Fight and Finding
David Flusser, Second Temple Judaism...
They brought the fire before God as an act of joy, in order to add love to the existing love. The motif or religious death appears here without the persecution that normally attends martyrdom. They loved God "to the death," the most important justification for death for God's sake beginning with the thought of Rabbi Aqiva. The idea of loving God "to the death" preceded that of martyrdom and would remain a key element in the Jewish understanding of dying for God for generations to come.
In the aftermath of the trauma, Moses...speaks. He reaches out to his older brother with words that are mysterious. Aarons' response is one word: va'yidom, 'and Aaron was silent. Let's look at each of these pieces separately. First, Moshe's response, and then Aharons.
Avot d’Rabbi Natan (“Fathers of Rabbi Nathan”) is a companion volume to Pirkei Avot, presenting maxims of wisdom alongside explanations and stories. Like Pirkei Avot, its organization is chronological, beginning with statements of early rabbis and continuing through successive generations of rabbis. The date of its composition and its precise relationship to Pikei Avot are matters of debate.
Composed: Talmudic Israel/Babylon (c.650 - c.950 CE)
Roberta Wall, Torah at the Intersection
This is exactly how the principle of connect before you correct works. You may have connected with this person yesterday,. And today, right now, renew the connection, keep renewing it, by connecting moment to moment. We do this by staying present with their energy, their feelings and needs, their experiencing.
When we rush to correct or respond, before we really inhabit the other person's experience, we eliminate the potential for new, unimagined solutions to arise. As Ramban tells the story, Aaron's sons didn't understand that the beauty of the moment would be revealed when Eternal Presence invited them in. They rushed in before mutual connection created space for intimacy and newness.
My late teacher Robert Gonzales taught that empathy can be understood as "presence without pressure." This is the meaning of "connect before you correct." When we slow down, rest in silence, breathe and come into presence with another person, the possibility of transformation will arise. The same goes for our self healing. When we slow down and allow ourselves to feel what we have walled off the possibility of deep healing arises.
Isaac ben Judah Abravanel (1437–1508)
Vayidom aharon - His heart turned to lifeless stone (domem - mineral), and he did not weep and mourn like a bereaved father, nor did he accept Moses' consolation for his soul had left him and he was speechless.
R. Eliezer Lipman Lichtenstein - Shem Olam
Scripture chose "vayidom" rather than "vayishtok", (synonyms of silence). The latter signifies the abstention from speaking, weeping, moaning or any other outward manifestation as "They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man" (Ps. 107:27), followed by, "then are they glad because "yishtoku" - they are quiet" (ibid., 30). The verb "domem" however, connotes inner peace and calm...Accordingly Scripture describes the saintly Aaron as "vayidom" and not merely as "vayishtok", thus emphasizing that his heart and soul were at peace within, that rather than questioning the standards of God, he justified the Diving verdict.
Theodore Adorno, Negative Dialektik
Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems. But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question of whether after Auschwitz you can go on living — especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living. His mere survival calls for the coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity, without which there could have been no Auschwitz; this is the drastic guilt put on him who was spared.
There is another type of silence, namely silence in the face of tragedy—the silence of Aaron. What was going on in Aaron's mind as he stood there speechless? It may be, and there is a rabbinic tradition to this effect, that Aaron's silence expressed his acceptance of the Divine decree. As painful, and perhaps inexplicable, as his sons' deaths may have been, Aaron deferred to God's greater wisdom.
However, there are at least two other possibilities. One is that Aaron was furious with God for having taken the lives of his sons, but he was reluctant to express this anger. It may be that he feared that in his rage he would utter some blasphemy. Alternatively, he may have seen such an outburst as pointless in the face of Divine Will.
There is, I believe, another possibility as well. Perhaps Aaron's silence was a form of disengagement, in at least two senses. The first may have been an emotional reaction beyond his control. The horror of what had occurred was so great that Aaron's mind may have shut down, thereby blanking out what had befallen his sons. Perhaps it was only in this way that he could bear the pain of his loss at that moment.
It may also be, however, that Aaron's silence was a means of disengaging from his persona as priest. How difficult it must have been for Aaron to serve God in the very place where that same God had taken the lives of two of his children. Aaron continued his holy work, but there was some part of him that was now silent, that did not turn to God in prayer and praise as it did in the past. The fire that killed Aaron's sons had wounded him profoundly as well.
We contemporary Jews often have difficulty believing that God listens to our prayers or that God concerns God's self with the fate of individual human beings at all. And yet we are angry at God when tragedy befalls us; at that moment, apparently, we believe or would like to believe that God could have responded to our pleas and averted the catastrophe. This is particularly true when we deal with the death of a loved one, especially when that death is untimely.
On the face of it, traditional liturgy responds to this anger and questioning by simply affirming the justice of God's ways. The blessing that is to be recited upon hearing of the death of a relative declares that God is a true judge. The rite surrounding burial is known as zidduq ha-din, a vindication of God's decree. The words of the kaddish do not address the thoughts and feelings of the mourner. Instead they are a praise of God.
There is, however, an interesting custom which is reminiscent of Aaron's silence. It is the practice to omit from the mourners' kaddish one of the paragraphs that is a part of the full kaddish. This paragraph, which begins with the word titqabel, states: "May all the prayers and pleas of the people Israel find acceptance before their Father in Heaven." Why is this paragraph omitted? It is, I believe, the silence of Aaron. This omission is a declaration of disengagement. Yes, God, I will continue to pray to you and serve you, but I cannot be expected at this moment, when you have taken from me the one I love, to declare that You are the One who hears prayers. My prayer, at least, has gone unanswered. In this moment of mourning, I will not pretend otherwise. (Eliezer B Diamond) http://www.jtsa.edu/aarons-silence