Shemini: For the Love of the Earth

By Ellen Bernstein

April 22, 2017 | Earth Day

In this week’s Torah portion, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, are consumed by God’s fire for a seemingly innocuous error, as they attempt to perform the ritual of the mishkan. Many readers are stunned by God’s apparent lack of compassion and unwillingness to give the boys a second chance. They can’t stand a God like this and try to rationalize God’s behavior.

The incident is even more jarring, since we’ve spent the last week celebrating Passover, greeting the spring after a long cold winter. The biblical cycle echoes the seasonal one: the Israelites have endured their own winter—attending to countless, exhausting details constructing God’s house, the Mishkan. At last everyone is ready to let their hair down and rejoice.

But there will be no rejoicing. Nadav and Avihu are dead.

What are we to make of this story? Why do the boys die?

The text simply says that they offered an alien fire which God had not commanded. The commentators explore various possibilities—maybe they were drunk or arrogant or too passionate in worship. What is clear is that they acted on their own initiative.

I am interested here in the Bible’s understanding of God.

It seems that many readers can only accept a concept of God that is merciful, caring, compassionate—a human measure of God. However, many forget that the biblical God appears in two paradigmatic ways represented by two names: Adonai and Elohim. Adonai is compassionate energy. Adonai is the One that walked with Adam in the garden; the One that promised land and heirs to the Israelites; the One that heard the Israelites’ cries in Egypt, intervened, and led them into freedom.

Adonai’s complement is Elohim. Elohim is dispassionate energy—Elohim is the God the universe. Elohim is the One that keeps the stars and planets orbiting in their courses; the One that holds the earth secure so that it doesn’t totter; the One that promises that dawn follows night. Elohim is the One that maintains the atmosphere in perfect equilibrium and maintains our physiologic systems in homeostasis—enabling us, and all creatures to live. Elohim is the face of God in this parasha.

Over the last many weeks, the Bible has been preoccupied with the technicalities of building a mishkan, a dwelling place for God. Scripture has been hyperfocused on the materials, form, color, proportions, size, symmetry and sequencing of the project. The rabbis said that in building the Mishkan, the Israelites were imitating God’s creation of the world. The rigorous and exacting work of building a home where God could dwell is a reminder of Elohim’s meticulous attention in creating an earthly home where all creatures could dwell. God laid out the dimensions of the world—the waters, air and earth, attentive to the materials, structure, chemistry, physics, and generative ability; hung the stars and planets in the sky, and animated the habitats with birds, fish, animals and people—each adapted to its place. Elohim inscribed the universe with order. A miniscule change in chemistry, physics or biology, would reverberate throughout the creation, potentially wreaking havoc and destroying life.

Here’s what I suggest is being taught. The priests were supposed to follow the prescribed rules of the ritual EXACTLY as God ordained—because the ritual was simulating God’s ordering of creation.

Those of you who watched “House of Cards,” may recall 4 Tibetan monks creating an exquisite sand drawing. Carefully and methodically, the monks set each grain of sand in place to fashion an intricately designed mandala. The Israelite priests, like the monks, were participating in acts of world-building or world-maintaining. On a fundamental energetic level, their scripted operations insure the stability of the world, and keep it from unraveling. The priests’ attention to the details in the preparation of the mishkan is reminiscent of Elohim’s precision in the creation of the world. The priests are simulating the essential, but generally un-noticed and un-appreciated structuring and vegetative functions of the Creation.

Since the ritual of the mishkan mimics the biological and physical universe–a perfectly ordered patterned hierarchical system—it was incumbent upon the priests to restrain their own egos and desires, and accommodate themselves to the prescribed order. The life of a priest requires humility and obedience. Elohim can not tolerate human initiative or spontaneity when it comes to the act of maintaining the holy spiritual center of the cosmos. The life of the world is at stake.

From Elohim’s perspective, the enactment of the mishkan ritual has consequences that pulsate throughout the entire universe. The universe can not endure human interference. That’s why God went to such great lengths to teach the priests how to perform the ritual in the first place. Now, Elohim must take the lives of Nadav and Avihu, otherwise God’s carefully constructed universe would collapse.

Elohim, the God of the universe, is distant and does not demonstrate love in a way that people typically recognize. Elohim is more interested in the whole cosmos than in individuals. The mishkan ritual is about the preciousness of ALL creation. . . so precious that God must consume those individuals that constitute a threat to the continuity of the ecological whole. Elohim’s love comes in the form of the creation itself—the air we breathe, the water we drink, the land that grows our food, the extraordinary diversity of creatures. . . the miraculous fact that life exists at all.

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