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Hallie Grossman's D’var Torah
February 15, 2007 Shabbat Shalom, everyone! My Torah portion is called Shemini. In this portion, all the Israelites have come from Egypt, led by Moses and Aaron, and are traveling with the Mishkan, their Tabernacle. The Tabernacle is a traveling temple, which the Israelites used to carry the arc through the desert. God commands Moses, Aaron, and Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu to come forth with many offerings. Moses and Aaron are doing as they were told when God appears suddenly at the altar, causing all of the people to fall on their faces in prayer. While everyone is on the ground, Nadav and Avihu come forward and offer before God an “alien fire” (“esh zara”), which had not been commanded of them. Suddenly, fire comes forth from God, and the Torah says “vayamutu lifne Adonai,” they died before God. As I was reading this, I pondered one major question: why did God kill Nadav and Avihu? I mean, God doesn’t just kill people for no reason, right? My initial reaction was that there had to be an underlying, hidden reason that God killed them. Maybe there was a secret meaning to the “alien fire” that led God to punish them or maybe they had done something terrible in their past. The more I thought about it, I started to wonder about God's character. How much do we really know about God? The Torah gives us scenarios in which God is portrayed as an incredibly loving being, but there are also times when God seems to be somewhat like a punishing parent. I wanted to see what Jewish tradition thought about the character of God in the story of Nadav and Avihu, so I looked at the midrash, the collection of traditional stories that fill in the blanks of the Torah. The midrashim I studied agreed with my original assumption that God must have had a reason for killing Nadav and Avihu. Some of the midrashim also shared my idea that God must have killed them because they were bad people. For example, in the Torah, right after they are killed, God says, “Do not drink wine or any other intoxicant when you enter the tent of meeting, or you may die.” One midrash suggests that this means they were drunk when they offered their sacrifice! But I don't really agree that this could be the only reason why God killed them; because, I for one, don’t think death is a fair punishment for offering a sacrifice while drunk. Another midrash in this vein says that Nadav and Avihu were very disrespectful towards Moses and Aaron. In this midrash, they thought of themselves as very noble and important. They asked rude questions such as, “When will those old men die, so we can take control of the community?” They were even disrespectful in the presence of God on Mount Sinai, staring at the Divine Presence instead of turning their eyes away as Moses did. Even though I didn't agree with all of these midrashim, we had the same basic idea, that Nadav and Avihu were bad people, and a serious punishment was inevitable. Other midrashim agree that God had a reason, but it was an incredibly good reason. In this version of the story, God didn't kill Nadav and Avihu as a punishment, but as a reward for being noble! In the Torah, right after God kills them, Moses says to their father, Aaron, "This is what God meant when He said, 'Through those near to me I show myself holy, and gain glory before all the people." According to this interpretation, Nadav and Avihu were so noble and so close to God, that God took their souls and used them to either make God’s self more holy or to share God’s holiness in front of all the Israelites. The Torah says, "And Aaron was silent;" at first I thought this meant that Aaron was in mourning, but seeing this side, I think that maybe Aaron is overwhelmed by his sons' achieving this stature. After studying these midrashim about Nadav and Avihu, I was still left with a lot of questions about God's character. God killing Nadav and Avihu could portray God's character as being harsh or mean, but it could also portray God as being generous and wanting to share holiness with people. Since there are two ways to look at God's character in this story, not to mention all the other stories in the Torah, I wanted to know, why isn't God portrayed as one stable, unchanging being in the Torah? Why does God have different sides, and different "faces," and different ways of acting? I'm not the first to raise these questions, and our tradition has developed many ways of answering them. One way Jewish tradition has imagined God is by organizing all the different sides of God that appear in the Torah into an image called the Tree of Life. This idea comes from kabbala, the mystical part of Judaism, (made popular by Madonna.) The tree of life is a chart-like diagram that divides God’s energy into different aspects, or sefirot. (have an image of the Tree of Life on the stand.) There are ten sefirot, but the two major ones that relate to this story are Chesed and Din. Chesed means loving kindness, and Din means judgment and boundaries. When we look at the Torah, some of God’s actions, like killing Nadav and Avihu, at first seem to be on the side of Din, or Judgment, because it seems like God destroyed two people for no reason. There are other examples of Din in the Torah too: God destroyed the entire world by flood, killed the firstborn in Egypt, and didn’t let Moses cross into the land of Israel. However, looking back on other portions, it seems that God is incredibly loving, full of Chesed: God created the world, led the Jews out of Egypt, and gave us the Torah. Din and Chesed relate to our lives too. We experience Chesed in everyday miracles like a snow day, a baby being born, the Mets winning a game, or a wedding. We experience Din when young people die, when someone gets hurt, or when a natural disaster occurs. But the line between Din and Chesed can be very confusing. For example, this year, I watched the NCAA college basketball tournament. As I watched, I would see a team I was rooting for win, and I would watch them celebrate and be happy for them. But then I would see the losing team, and all of them would be crying, and I would feel terrible! Watching the games confused me in the same way that reading the Torah confuses me and many Jews, for that matter. Maybe this is why the Torah is so complicated, because it reflects life. Thinking about Nadav and Avihu's death makes us think about death in general. There are so many questions about death and different ways to look at it. One way of looking at it is that people die to make room for new people. This is the Chesed side of death, and if there is an old person who lives a long, healthy, happy life and dies peacefully, it makes sense. But when young people die, it can’t be explained. Some people might say that we die because of our sins; that would be the Din side. However, I don’t believe this interpretation because it makes God's character out to be pure judgment. In the story of Nadav and Avihu, as in life, there isn't one answer to our difficult questions. The Torah gives us the freedom to interpret it in our own way. My personal interpretation of death is that it’s not really God’s fault. I think this is the best way to look at it. To explain this, think of the world as the big picture. Going back to the sports metaphor, the big picture means that everything in life has more than one side, and our interpretations depend on our perspectives. Now, when I think about Nadav and Avihu, the truth is, I don't know why they died. As I’ve learned from studying the Torah, there is a lot of freedom to interpret and decide on one’s own opinion, and there is also freedom to say, "I don't know." After all these hours of studying, I still don't have an answer about Nadav and Avihu. I think none of us know why young people die mysteriously. However, despite my not having an answer about Nadav and Avihu, I have still learned many ways of responding to my Torah portion. When any young person dies, someone might mourn in silence like Aaron, or try to explain it like Moses. Any of us might wrestle with God as loving—full of chesed—or as a strict judge. During this process, I have also learned how to study Torah. Before I started, I thought the Torah was just a book with a lot of stories in it, but now I think that it's trying to teach us about life. There are so many stories and lessons to be learned from it. Just through reading the story of Nadav and Avihu, I've thought about how death can be interpreted, who God is, Din and Chesed, and the big mural of life. To wrap this up, the process of studying the Torah, becoming a Bat Mitzvah and developing as a member of the Jewish community has taught me a lot; I’ve learned to understand aspects of life that I didn’t comprehend before, along with many other benefits, and overall, I’m glad that I was given this honorable opportunity. The people whom I’d like to thank for this opportunity are first, my tutor, Alicia, who worked with me for a long time, making sure I knew every single piece of Hebrew and helping me write my speech. The second person I’d like to thank is Rabbi Lippmann, who also helped me a lot with my speech and many other aspects. I’d like to thank my parents for organizing my lessons and party and everything, and for supporting me all the time. Last but not least, I’d like to thank my little brother, Jesse, who turned down the volume of the computer when I practiced. Thank you and Shabbat Shalom.