How to draw close to the Divine

By Cantor Sheri Allen
Parashat Shemini

We read about two very disturbing and painful incidents that occur in this week’s Torah and Haftorah portions.

On what should’ve been one of the happiest days of Aaron’s life, the installation of himself and his sons as Priests and their initiation of the sacrificial ritual in the Portable Sanctuary, tragedy strikes. Nadav and Abihu, Aaron’s sons, get a bit overzealous and offer an “eish zara,” an alien fire not commanded by God, on the sacrificial altar. They are immediately consumed by fire and die instantly.

The Torah does not specify exactly what unforgivable crime the brothers committed to warrant such a harsh punishment, but commentators have much to say about it. Rabbi Reuven Hammer, in his book “Entering Torah,” outlines several of them: They were drunk; they went into the holiest part of the Sanctuary without permission; they didn’t expressly follow God’s orders concerning how the sacrifices should be made; they disrespected their elders and their father. Moses immediately offers his own explanation (Leviticus 10:3): “This is what the Lord meant when God said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.” In other words, because they were so close to God, and were God’s representatives for the people, God held them to a higher standard.

For me, none of these explanations are particularly satisfactory.

Sure, the young men might have been a bit overzealous, but what if they were just trying to prove their devotion to God, simply got caught up in the moment and, like a child who is drawn to a match or a hot stove, they got burned? And perhaps God, as Parent, grieved this loss as well.

Another happy occasion is tragically interrupted when, on the way to carrying the Ark from the house of Abinadav to its permanent location in Jerusalem, the ox carrying the cart housing the Ark stumbles. Uzzah, one of Abinadav’s sons guiding this processional, lays his hands on the Ark to keep it from falling to the ground, and is instantly struck dead. The procession is then halted for three months, much to King David’s frustration.

Why would Uzzah’s attempt to save the Ark be met with fatal consequences? Rav Avraham Rivlin states (“Haftorah: Hashem became angry with Uzzah”) that the Gemara (a rabbinical commentary found in the Talmud) provides some explanation. “(Sotah 35a) The Gemara makes clear beforehand that when Israel crossed the Jordan River, there was a miracle, and the priests, who seemed as if they were carrying the Ark, in truth were carried in a miraculous manner by it. Therefore, the Abarbanel explains, ‘Uzzah sinned with lack of faith, in thinking that the Ark would fall to the ground …’”

Under this reasoning, Uzzah’s sin was that he lacked faith that, despite the laws of gravity, the Ark would not have fallen. But hadn’t God set those laws of gravity as well? Apparently, holiness takes precedence over gravity, as the Gemara continues, “Uzza’s act stemmed from insensitivity to the sanctity of the Ark. Had he properly felt the sanctity, he would not have tried to prevent its falling to the ground, for he would have thought that it was in the power of the Ark to carry itself.”

The Maharal, a 16th-century sage and scholar, does add this caveat, however: “Nevertheless, because of this sin, he did not deserve to die, as he had acted unintentionally. But his taking hold of it prepared him for death, as he should have known that the Ark carries its bearers.”

Blame is clearly on the shoulders of Uzzah, who apparently should have known better and lacked faith in the Ark’s ability to stay put. But perhaps there is a broader lesson here: namely, that as much as we aspire to be holy, we should be careful not to come too close to holiness itself. On Yom Kippur, only the High Priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies. Anyone else tempted to tag along would be met with sudden death. And look what happened to Korach and crew when he tried to usurp Moses’ place and offered his own incense offering to God. He and 250 others were sucked into the bowels of the earth. Uzzah didn’t just come close to holiness — he literally touched the most holy object that ever existed.

We all know that it’s not a good idea to stand outside in the middle of an electrical storm. But if a loved one was out in that storm, I’d venture to say that we would take risks to save them. Likewise, Uzzah reached out to save the Ark from falling, even knowing that it could be a fatal move. Perhaps this was an act of love for God, not an act of defiance or unfaithfulness. But then the question remains: If this was an act of devotion of Uzzah’s part, why would God be “incensed” enough with Uzzah to “strike him down”?

I would like to believe, rather, that God watched this whole incident unfold in horror, as Uzzah crossed a divine line — and, being human, would not be able to cross back again. Even Moses was warned that he couldn’t see God’s face and live.

While Uzzah wasn’t seeing God face to face, he touched something that was infused with that Godliness, and was unable to survive the aftereffect of that powerful moment.

For our 21st-century minds, it’s still hard to understand this as anything but, “no good deed goes unpunished.” But perhaps we would do better to focus on the message that the way to draw close to the Divine is recognize our limitations as human beings and do the best we can to model holiness through our actions in this world. Our attempt to help repair the world and see the Divine in others is, in fact, the way that we can attain some measure of holiness here on earth.

Sheri Allen is the part-time cantor of Congregation Beth Shalom in Arlington.  Her views do not necessarily reflect those of her congregation.

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