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Shemini 5767

Parshat Shemini
(2 Samuel 6:1-7:17)
April 14, 2007

Both the Torah reading and the haftarah are marked by unexplained tragedies. In the Torah reading, we read of the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron the High Priest, soon after his inauguration into the position. The circumstances of their deaths remain unclear from the storyline of the Torah. What is known is that their deaths occurred in the service of God. Similarly, the haftarah records the death of Uzzah, who had been charged with guiding the cart carrying the Ark of God to Jerusalem, when he attempted to reach out to grasp the ark and keep it from fall off the cart: \”But when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out for the Ark of God and grasped it, for the oxen had stumbled. The Lord was incensed at Uzzah. And God struck him down on the spot for his indiscretion, and he died there beside the Ark of God. David was distressed because the Lord had inflicted a breach upon Uzzah; and that place was named Perez-Uzzah, as it is stilled called.\”

As the haftarah points out, David was deeply distressed by these events as any sensitive religious person might be by tragic events such as these. The tradition goes out of its way to attempt to find reasonable explanations for these tragic events. Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik (20th century Boston, New York) finds significance in the very fact that there is no reasonable explanation for such events. Why? The very inability to explain these tragedies reflects a certain reality that we live with on a constant basis.

He notes that liturgically this Torah reading and haftarah reading frequently follow immediately after Pesah. This allows him to draw an existential distinction between Pesah and the days which follow. Pesah, he asserts, represents living in God\’s presence where God watches over and ensures Israel\’s constant well being. This does not represent the \”natural order\” where we have to live with the absurdity that joy and grief go hand in hand. The object of this juxtaposition, according to Soloveitchik, is to teach us how to live with God-given dignity despite the difficulty of natural existence.(See Festival of Freedom pp. 160-172)

How are we to contend with the difficulty of our everyday lives and still be committed to God and Torah? To answer this question, he notes the other liturgical event which coincides with this season – the counting of the Omer. This commandment, which is a continuation of what was the barley offering in Temple times was offered on the second day of Pesah. (See Lev. 23:9-14) It represents the manner in which the religious person must face \”normal\” life. Since the omer offering was made from the most modest grain (barley) in a modest measure, it was intended to remind every Jew that neither dignity nor service to God need be grandiose. Dignity means lending sanctity to that which is profane even in the most humble circumstances and in the direst situations. This is the mark of Jewish faith even when the world seems upside down.

About This Commentary

This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives. Rashei Yeshiva: Rabbi Joel Levy & Dr. Joshua Kulp. Rabbi Joel Roth, Rosh Yeshiva Emeritus .  Sponsors – The Conservative Yeshiva would like to thank the following for their generous support of the Haftarah Commentary:

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