Gd and People in Parshat Shemini

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Shemini gave Onkelos, Rashi, and Ramban opportunities to show us a world where Gd plays a clear role while leaving room for human beings to contribute meaningfully as well.

Onkelos a Kabbalist?

As the Jews are dedicating the Mishkan, Moshe tells them what Gd said to do to have kevod Hashem (loosely, the Honor or Glory of Gd) appear to them, 9;6. In 9;23, the Kavod does then appear; both times, Onkelos uses itgelei, was revealed, rather than appeared or some other verb that would imply physicality. The verse’s reference to  kevod Hashem, the Glory of Gd, already  gave some protection from thinking we were talking about Gd appearing, yet Onkelos still uses the safer revealed rather than the more literal “appeared” or, “was seen.”

Ramban to Bereshit 46;1 points out Onkelos is not as consistent with these kinds of words as a rationalist like Rambam should need. Rambam (Maimonides) had stressed Onkelos’ avoidance of the physical with Gd, for Rambam an important predecessor who fit with his, Rambam’s, rationalist tendencies. For example, Onkelos translates literally Gd’s assurances to Ya’akov to take him down to Egypt and bring his descendants back to Canaan.

Rambam gave a reason for the choice, but Ramban found enough holes in it to be sure the answer lay in esoteric wisdom, Onkelos was actually a kabbalist, and therefore treated the Kavod  as an extension of Gd Himself, as it were. I confess to some skepticism, but another comment of Onkelos’ in the parsha seems to me to support Ramban’s case. After Nadav and Avihu are killed, Moshe complains about Aharon and his sons deciding not to eat the ordinary hatat, sin offering. To point out the sacrifice had been valid (and should not have been burnt), Moshe says its blood had not been brought to where it would have been invalidated, el ha-kodesh penima, literally “to the Holy, inside.”

Onkelos writes le-vet kudsha gava’ah , to the area of inner holiness. Lehem VeSimhah (as ArtScroll reports) pointed out Onkelos has treated penimah, inner, as an adjective of the sanctity of the roomrather than of the room itself. Possibly, Onkelos took Moshe to be referring to the varying levels of sanctity in the Mishkan. Had the blood been brought inside, the reason it would be invalidated is the inner holiness, different in kind than outer holiness.

Such notions, types or levels of  holiness emanating from Gd that humans can sense or differentiate in physical areas, does jibe well with the kabbalism Ramban assumed of him.

Gd’s Justice, People’s Reaction

When Nadav and Avihu are killed, Moshe says, 10;3, this event “is that which Gd said,” according to Vayikra Rabbah and Rashi meaning Gd had previously warned this is how such situation would play out, Gd sanctifies His Name through those closest to Him. Ramban thinks “that which Gd said” can be “which Gd thought.” For him, Moshe was telling Aharon Gd had said to Himself, as it were, at the moment of Nadav and Avihu’s sin, a reaction was needed, lest they ruin the sanctity of the moment and of the Mishkan Gd was articulating the value in punishing prominent people, because others would learn a lesson. For all people know or learn on their own, they also need extraordinary events to express an aspect of Gd’s Will human beings would not come to otherwise.

Rashi thinks Gd expects those humans to react in awe, to realize the severity of what happened to Nadav and Avihu warns the rest of us of what we theoretically deserve. He assumes people will accept rather than question Gd’s justice, will try to learn lessons for their own conduct.

Accepting it was what Gd decided, correctly, could coexist with feeling the tragedy fully. After Moshe complains, Aharon defends their decision not to eat the sacrifice, stepping in to respond to what Moshe had said to Elazar and Itamar, 10;16. Rashi says the boys were being respectful, not to speak up in front of their father nor speak back to their teacher.

Aharon says Gd would not want them to eat the sacrifice after ka-eleh  (like these) has happened (his sons’ being put to death for their misdeeds), 10;19. Onkelos wrote akan ke-ileintragedies  such as these. Aharon did appropriately stay silent in the face of Gd’s justice while also fully experiencing his sorrow over his loss.

Many Forms of Song

Aharon’s silence gave Onkelos an opportunity to teach praise of Gd can take many forms. While ArtScroll has Onkelos writing u-shetik, Aharon stayed silent, a simple rendering of va-yidom, my Bar-Ilan Responsa flash drive has ve-shabah, Aharon praised Gd (it offers u-shetik in parentheses, as an alternative). Onkelos uses the same root, shabah, to explain va-yaronu¸9;24, the people’s reaction to the fire coming down from heaven and consuming the sacrifices on the altar, and twice more in Bamidbar 21;18, once for the root of shir, to sing, once for enu lah, answer it (in song).

For Onkelos, shabah in Aramaic means to praise to Gd, which can be a song, a shout (va-yaronu probably means raised their voices) and in silence.

Guilt and Shame in the Dedication of the Mishkan

Perhaps Rashi was sure the Jews would learn lessons from Nadav and Avihu’s deaths as a function of his certainty Aharon and the people as already very aware of the blemishes on their record. In his reading, Moshe tells Aharon to approach and perform the sacrificial services of the Mishkan’s dedication, 9;7, because Aharon doubted his worthiness.

Reassured he had been chosen for this, Aharon performs the service, but nothing happens. Moshe has the two of them enter the Mishkan, 9;23, because Aharon took the lack of Heavenly response as more proof of Gd’s anger over Aharon’s role in the Golden Calf.

They pray together, and come out and bless the people, who were also nervous about what was going on. They, too, had spent the week of the dedication fearfully certain their sins would stop Gd from resting the Presence among them. When the Presence did not immediately appear, they complained to Moshe for having lured them into wasting efforts on building the Mishkan, the reason Moshe tells them these are the ways Gd said to act for Gd’s Glory to appear. And then it does.

I think I notice it so much because many people I know would never have gotten to the starting point Rashi assumes of the Jews and Aharon, the worry their past should deny them what they wished for, and then having the joy of Gd granting them what they knew they did not deserve.

Human Initiative

For all his hesitance, Ramban thinks Aharon might have had enough self-confidence to formulate a blessing of the people on his own. Before he and Moshe enter the Mishkan, as we discussed above, he lifts his hands and blesses the people, 9;22. Rashi thinks it was bircat kohanim, the priestly blessing the Torah reveals in Bamidbar 6;22-6.

Ramban ordinarily dislikes reading the Torah out of order (as it would have to be, if Aharon knows the blessing because Gd had already told it to Moshe). In this instance, he is less opposed, because the next passage in Bamidbar lists the gifts the heads of the tribes gave to celebrate the dedication. That part of the Torah thus seems out of place anyway, so adding a bit to it is not significant. He also notes Torat Kohanim Shemini 30 supports Rashi’s view, because it says Aharon’s blessing would have been hidden for all time had the Torah not told it to us later.

Still, Ramban offers his own idea: Aharon composed a blessing of his own, as Shlomo did at the dedication of the Temple, I Melachim 8;55. Ramban mostly backs away from it because of the Midrash (although were I in his shiur I would have suggested Aharon came up with the blessing on his own, as Ramban thought, and Gd later ratified it as the one the priests would always give the people).

Even if that example of people’s creativity did not work out, Ramban thinks the Torah left it to humanity to figure out which animals were non-kosher. The Torah lists only four animals, each with one of two signs of being permitted to Jews; Sifra 3;2 says if those four cannot be eaten, certainly the animals without any signs of kashrut may not be, either.

It cannot be a kal va-homer, Ramban says, an argument from a less clear case to a more clear one, because courts do not administer punishments based on such reasoning (a principle known as ein onshin min ha-din). Instead, Ramban thinks Sifra was telling us the four animals showed each kind of invalidation was enough to make an animal prohibited. If it’s enough to lack a split hoof, all the other non-kosher animals lack split hooves. If it’s enough not to chew one’s cud, the non-kosher animals do not chew their cud.

Kosher Food and Our Relationship with Gd

To take us full circle, food matters more directly to Jews’ relationship with Gd than we might think. Rashi to 11;8 notes the Torah prohibits touching the carcass of nonkosher animals, an odd rule because ordinary Jews are not usually forbidden from becoming ritually impure. They may not enter the Temple environs or eat sanctified foods while impure, but there is no obvious reason they should not enter or stay in such a state everywhere else.

It’s about the holidays, Rashi says, a rule Rambam codified in Laws of Food-Impurity 16;7, Jews are obligated to purify themselves before the holidays, to be able to enter the Temple courtyard. Three times a year, Jews had to be able to celebrate at the Temple, and the Torah chose a food version of ritual impurity to make the point.

Prohibited foods also present a rare situation implicating minors, in Rashi’s reading of 11;13. The Torah says certain birds may not be eaten, in the passive. Rashi says it tells us adults may not feed them to children, who are not ordinarily obligated to observe the Torah. In this case, the act seems to be the problem, objectionable enough to Gd to attach liability to the one who feeds it to someone else as much as to the person who eats it.

It’s a cycle I feel we see again and again because it is what the world is about: what there is to say about Gd, how and when Gd impacts on the human world and how humans should and do react, and how humans act on their own, to build a world more worthy of Gd’s Presence.

About Gidon Rothstein

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