Parshat Shmini: Would You Still Love Me, Warts And All?

Video of the Rabbi and Artist in conversation about the Parsha:

For more about Artist Hagit Cohen:

For more about Rabbi Jessica Kate Meyer:

Piece Description, Hagit Cohen, “Va’Tetze Esh”:

A couple of years ago, when visiting the UC Botanical garden I came by a palm tree that was somewhat diseased and abnormal. As a result of the tree’s condition, the palm’s fronds came out distorted in a way that fascinated me. The frond’s image I captured in the studio, appeared as a menacing creature that is lurking. Its’ expression touched me in a deep visceral way.

This image came to my mind when studying Parashat Shmini with Rabi Jessica Meyer. The ominous presence depicted in the image had a smilier disturbing effect on me, as the text describing the detailed sacrificial, somewhat gruesome, act that Aharon performed at the tabernacle in the desert. This image choice became more clear to me, when we studied the shocking brief moment of Nadav and Avihu, Aharon sons, being consumed by Go’d fire, and of Aharon silence grief after their death.

I chose to isolate the image of the frond on a white background to express Aharon’s silence and isolation with his grief, as he was not permitted to grief in public. I also added the red color “inside” the “creature” to bring out the blood and fire involved both in the sacrificial act and the death of Aharon’s two sons.

In the end, I decided to add the text “And then came forth fire from before the Lord and devoured them and they died before the Lord” in Hebrew. I chose to exhibit the text in a shape that emulates the edges of the frond’s shape. The text appears and disappears in certain areas to represent the fire appearing and disappearing in such brief and minimal description of Nadav and Avihu’s death.

Discussion Questions:
1. Hagit Cohen chose to exhibit a palm frond. of all images to depict an anomalous natural outgrowth, what particular significance does the palm frond have? In what contexts have you seen palm fronds in your own life? What purpose did they serve?

2. On one version of the image the text from Leviticus 10:2 (“And fire came forth from God and consumed them; thus they died before God”) overlays the image. How do the two versions make you feel?

3. The opening of the palm frond reveals a red, the image sits in a white background, and the palm frond itself has an earthen bronze shine. How do the different colors and textures tell the story of Nadav and Avihu?

4. Hagit uses photography to tell an ancient biblical story and bring up impactful imagery of ideas that came up in her studies. How does this art uniquely position itself to be able to achieve this? What are ways that you would approach a similar task if you were to tell the story of Parshat Shmini?

Rabbi Jessica Kate Meyer:

We are sitting in the audience, still. Silence, like the bullet that’s missed us, spins —-Ilya Kamintsky, “Deaf Republic”

My teacher, Rabbi Nehemia Polen, says: “Put what’s at the center in the middle.” He’s referring to chapter 9/10 of Leviticus, the midpoint of the Torah–both the physical halfway mark of the text and, according to my teacher, the beating heart of Torah. Chapter 9 recounts the events of the 8th day (shemini)– inauguration day, culmination day–opening ceremonies of the tabernacle and of the priestly service. Aaron has been anointed with oil and blood into his sacred role, and he performs his very first sacrificial offering as High Priest. His sons, also priests, act alongside him, and the entire Israelite community observes the sacrifice as audience and chorus. This ritual theater has the highest stakes possible. Living beings will be killed, their blood spilled and sprinkled, their organs and innards dissected from the body, and presented as an offering to Y-H-W-H, to the Divine Being, for whose love and devotion we give up this bloody gift. It is the 8th day, and the opening ceremony goes according to plan, the blood is spilled just right, the organs flayed, the smoke rises, and the One we love, the One we need, the One and only, appears:

וַיָּבֹ֨א מֹשֶׁ֤ה וְאַהֲרֹן֙ אֶל־אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֔ד וַיֵּ֣צְא֔וּ וַֽיְבָרְכ֖וּ אֶת־הָעָ֑ם וַיֵּרָ֥א כְבוֹד־ה' אֶל־כל־הָעָֽם׃

“Now Moshe and Aharon had entered the Tent of Appointment;they came out and they blessed the people,and the Glory of YHWH was seen by the entire people.” -Leviticus 9:23

God’s kavod/glory appears before the whole community (we see them watching, but we can’t see what they see), and with a flash of fire, God’s presence consumes the sacrifices on the altar. In rapturous joy, all of the people cry out in song and fall to the ground in prostration. Everything has gone according to plan. God’s presence has been revealed. And then, in a shocking turn of events, on the same day, with the same alacrity, with the same motion that it consumed the sacrifice, God’s inflammatory presence consumes Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s two eldest sons, who had gone off script and brought their own offering. These two priests, two leading actors in our sacred ritual drama, are dead. We had no idea just how high these stakes really were; the art of ritual performance is life and death. Nadav and Avihu. Nadav, the generous one, the oldest son, and Avihu, the one who most resembled his father. How? Why? Two young men in their prime immolated on the day of communal celebration? Was this Divine punishment? Divine love pulling them in close? Was this part of the plan, or did God mistake them for the sacrifice itself? What were the contents of their strange fire that God had not commanded? Was their creative impulse out of bounds, and punishable by death? Were they high off of banned substances and religious fervor? Perhaps it was youthful arrogance–they refused to collaborate and consult with each other and take direction from their elders? Or did they just come too close? So many postulations, excuses, rumors. We talk about Nadav and Avihu’s deaths to locate some sense or meaning, or to bring them back in some way, to convince ourselves it will be okay, but when it comes down to it, really.there is no reason. No answer. No sense to make.

Only Silence.

After the crowds sang with jubilation in God’s presence, after the crackling fire consumed sacrifice and priest alike, after seeking answers for the unanswerable, we all stand with Aaron, witnesses to his silence. His lonely silence וידום אהרון. Vayidom Aharon. Because after the rush of his performance leads to the horror of his sons’ death (murder?) by the One for whom he performs/exists, there is only silence. ד.מ.מ The root of silence implies there had been movement, and it ceased. There had been speech. But no more. Ramban reads that Aaron had wept, and then became silent. And perhaps he will never weep again. From the blood (dam/דם) to the silence (demama/דממה). From the pulsating lifeforce to a petrification in the veins. We stand with Aaron, frozen, inanimate in that moment (domem/דומם).