Posted on March 23, 2011
by Corey Helfand
Parashat Shmini is no exception to the book of VaYikra when it comes to talking about the details of the ritual sacrifices. However, the events in Shmini change the mood of the chain of events that had happened up until this point. Shmini opens with the introduction to the priestly service. But the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, drastically change the joyful mood of the ritual sacrifice to the subject of death and morning.
The Torah says that the reason for Nadab and Abihu’s death is because they brought “Esh Zarah” into the Holy of Holies. But it is difficult to say what that forbidden sacrifice was. Rambam comments that Aaron’s sons were killed because they brought a sacrifice even though they had not been commanded to do so. Sifra as well as other commentators offer that in addition to not having been told to bring the sacrifice, Aaron’s sons brought this “forbidden sacrifice” into the Holy of Holies, a place that only the Kohen Gadol could go on Yom Kippur. It is unclear as to why Nadab and Abihu acted in the manner that they did and it is also hard to understand why the death penalty was the punishment for what seems to be such a small crime.
But despite this tragic event, Aaron and Moshe are commanded by God not to show signs of mourning and to move on with leading and teaching the people of the rituals and laws. The ability of Moshe and Aaron to simply move on from the horrible and sudden death of Nadab and Abihu shows their great leadership and it brings about joy once again, in the presence of the Mishkan.
The conclusion of Parashat Shmini is a continuation of the laws of Kashrut. Back in Parashat Mishpatim, we are taught not to mix a “kid in its mothers milk.” Parashat Shmini discusses the types of animals that are allowed and those that are forbidden to eat. One of the most important laws involves eating an animal that has split hooves and chews its cud. In addition to this law, Parashat Shmini discusses how to distinguish between contaminated and pure animals, so that we as Jews know which animals we are permitted to eat. Even though Shmini is a continuation of the laws given to the Jewish people, it is a Parsha that teaches us about sorrow and joy, and our ability to deal with mourning and listening. Nadab and Abihu did not purposely try to anger God, nor did they intend for their actions to be punishable by death. But the actions of Moshe and Aaron following their deaths, shows the kind of leaders that they were and their ability to keep the attention and order of the people of Israel, and show the people the importance of following God’s laws and commandments.