God spoke to Moshe after the death of Aharon’s two sons, when they approached before God, and they died. (Vayikra 16:1)
On one hand, double parshios are a boon because they offer so much more to write about than a single parshah. On the other hand, because they offer so much more to write about than a single parshah, whatever you choose as your topic, so much more gets left out of the picture. Therefore, as a compromise, it is always worthwhile to pick a subject that can act as a conceptual undercurrent for both parshios at the same time. That is, if you can find one.
The truth is, a relevant theme to both parshios is in the very first verse, mentioned above. Especially, since, in other places where the death of Nadav and Avihu is recalled, it mentions the reason for their death: unauthorized fire-offering. In this case, the verse takes a generic approach to their death, only mentioning that they died when they approached God, which in and of itself certainly does not seem so wrong.
There is a story in the Talmud that provides some interesting background to all of this:
- It once happened that [during a drought] they petitioned Choni HaMagel, “Pray for rain to fall.”
Choni told them, “Go, bring your Passover ovens indoors so that the should not dissolve.”
Choni prayed, but no rain fell. What did he do? He drew a circle and stood in the middle of it and said to God, “Master of the Universe! Your children turned to me because I am like a member of your household. I swear by your great Name that I am not moving from here until You have compassion upon Your children!”
Rain began to drizzle.
Choni said, “That’s not what I asked for! I asked for rains to fill the cisterns, trenches and reservoirs!”
As a result, rain started coming down in torrents.
So Choni added, “That’s not what I asked for either. I asked for good rains, of blessing and generosity.”
A proper rain began to fall, and it continued to fall until it forced the Jews out of Jerusalem up onto the Temple Mount because of the flooding caused by the rains. So they told Choni, “Just as you prayed that the rains should fall, pray now that they should stop.”
He told them, “Go and see if the `Stone of Claims’ has dissolved yet.”
Shimon Ben Shetach sent a message to Choni, “If it were not for the fact that you are Choni I would have issued a decree of excommunication against you! But what can I do against you? You are like one who unburdens himself before God and yet He still fulfills your wish, like a child who unburdens himself before his father and yet his father fulfills his wish! `Let your father and mother be glad, and let her who bore you rejoice’ (Mishlei 23:25).” (Ta’anis 19a)
After all, imagine what would happen if everyone approached Heaven the same way, with the same demanding tone! The result would not be rain of blessing, but rain of destruction, God forbid. We are God’s chosen people and His treasured nation, but God is God, to Whom we can apply every adjective of greatness and still fall tremendously short. And, that is a GROSS understatement.
That is what Dovid HaMelech was trying to say when he wrote:
- God, what is man that You recognize him; the son of a frail human that You reckon with him? (Tehillim 144:3)
We talk about God like He’s the rabbi of our shul, and many do far worse, denigrating Him tremendously. Our world in which live, which seems so vast to us that it takes our breath away, is but a pinhead of a world compared to the entire system of Creation of which it is a puny part. If we even half understood Who God is, we’d be too afraid to get out of bed in the morning.
But that is not the point of Creation, clearly. Not only does God give us tremendous slack, He even allows us to approach him. But as Parashas Shemini teaches, especially the Haftarah, approaching God has its strict boundaries, and that is the thread of these parshios. For, not only did Nadav and Avihu fervently approach God, they did it outside the boundaries that are permissible, as did Uzziah in the Haftarah, and in each case, they paid for it with their lives.
On the other hand, Dovid HaMelech, once he was inspired to build a temple for God didn’t just do it. Rather, he consulted Noson the prophet to make sure his desire was in line with history. Noson told him, “Do whatever it is your heart desires,” which must have delighted Dovid HaMelech to no end.
Until, that is, God told Noson to tell Dovid that the temple he was burning to build was a no-go. In spite of his extremely sincere desire to build a house for God, his tremendous example of loyalty to God, his sterling character traits, and the means he had at his disposal to carry out his plan, God said that Dovid HaMelech had too much blood on his hands, even though all of it was there for the sake of God and the Jewish people.
Now, some, or actually, most, would have taken that as a Divine slap across the face. After all God had put Dovid through on his way to becoming king over the Jewish people, He then rejects his desire to build a temple for that very reason? Is that fair? Where’s the justice!
However, those were not questions that Dovid HaMelech asked. Rather, instead, he asked Noson the Prophet what he could do as part of the process of building a house for the Divine Presence, and that included buying the location and designing the layout, no small contribution to the most incredible structure mankind has ever known.
Not only this, but:
- When Shlomo built the Temple and desired to bring the Ark into the Holy of Holies, the gates clung to each other. Shlomo said 24 prayers but was not answered. He opened [his mouth] and exclaimed, “Lift up your heads, O gates, and be lifted up, everlasting doors, and the King of glory shall come in.” (Tehillim 24:7) . but he was not answered. However, as soon as he prayed, “Lord, God, do not turn away the face of Your anointed; remember the good deeds of Dovid Your servant,” (Divrei HaYamim 2:6:42), he was immediately answered. (Shabbos 30a)
Though, most of us do not see ourselves in such terms, and feel no need to be concerned that we will venture beyond the boundaries of service of God, as other greater people have done over history, the truth is, there is an application of this principle even on the everyday level. Not that we have to worry about threads of fire emerging from the Aron HaKodesh and burning out our souls, but there is still reason to be concerned about the liberties we take while trying to be “good Jews.”
You see it all the time, usually in the lives of others, because it is easy to pick out the mistakes of others, and to be critical of their liberties, than of our own. I’m not talking about outright selfish acts or clear sins. Most believing Jews have to go a far way to rationalize such anti-Torah behavior, and unfortunately, do so on occasion.
I’m talking about mistakes such as learning Torah during the Chazan’s repetition of the Shemonah Esrai, or speaking about non-Shabbos matters on Shabbos, or engaging in activities not befitting a Torah Jew in the name of outreach, or something similar. In each case, and many others like them, the act is something that, in another set of circumstances might not only be permissible, but admirable.
It would not take me long to give over my own list of religious liberties (but I’m not going to, so don’t go looking for them), that to some might not appear so bad, but which to others might certainly raise an eyebrow or two. We all tend to be strong in areas in which others are weak, and weak where others are strong. But, at the end of the day, all of us must obey the boundaries the Torah sets when it comes to serving God.
And, since a large part of the service of God includes relationships between man and his fellow, the laws of illicit relationships come up in this week’s parshah as well. The male-female relationship can be one of the holiest institutions when it is the result of Kiddushin, and one of the most profane when it is done randomly and without commitment.
And, when the Torah begins the next parshah with the mitzvah to be holy, it is not saying something new, just reiterating the main theme once again after all the details of the previous parshah. Even the most basic relationships come down to one’s own personal relationship with God, and the Torah reminds us of this before launching into more commandments between one person and another.
All of this reminds me of a story that Rabbi Berel Wein tells about his rebi, who once was the head of kashrus for the OU, many years back. It was a time before the Jewish consumer meant that much to the gentile producers, and so the OU had to work hard to make sure something was deserving of its label, upon which many Jews would rely when purchasing specific products.
Anyone who has learned anything about kashrus knows that the laws are not always so clear cut, and that often, out of doubt or just to avoid error, stringencies are created. As a result, in certain situations, leniencies can be relied upon to avoid great financial loss, or for the sake of Shabbos, especially if such lenient opinions clearly exist in the Talmud or Poskim. The only question becomes, what constitutes a need for such leniencies?
On one occasion, after other rabbis on the kashrus board tried to persuade Rabbi Wein’s rebi to take their side and permit certain products, he responded by saying, “What does God say!”
Good question, no? After all, everything we’re doing is supposed to be for Him, for His glory, to sanctify His holy Name. So, why not see if what we are doing is actually accomplishing that, or something more personal to ourselves, no matter how kosher it may appear to others looking on. Because, you can fool yourself most of the time, others some of the time, but God, none of the time!
So, it is a good statement to use when you are doing something that might be considered even a little bit questionable by others. Just ask, “What would God say about what I am doing right now?” If you can lie to yourself about that answer, then you have a more serious problem than simply indulging in a suspicious religious activity from time-to-time, and you might want to contact a higher authority to check it out.
If you are truly a lover of God and truth, and you ask that question, more than likely, you will be honest enough to desist if you really shouldn’t be doing it. After all, if your service of God is not serving God, then what good is it in the end? Might as well get it right from the start, and let your zealousness count above and below.
Copyright © by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Project Genesis, Inc.
Rabbi Winston has authored many books on Jewish philosophy (Hashkofa). If you enjoy Rabbi Winston’s Perceptions on the Parsha, you may enjoy his books. Visit Rabbi Winston’s online book store for more details! www.thirtysix.org