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Parshat Shemini (5767)

This week’s section tells of the death of Nadav and Avihu, punished by G-d for entering the Holy of Holies on the opening day of the Mishkan (Tabernacle).

The Torah does not praise death, or even the rewards of the afterlife.

Exactly the opposite, death is associated with ‘Tuma’ (impurity), and ‘Chait’ (the sins of Adam and the Golden Calf brought death into the world).

In fact death is so abhorrent to Judaism that in order to save a life one may cancel almost all of the Torah’s commandments!

Therefore it is strange that in this week’s section (10:3) Moshe praises these two sons of Aaron whose actions brought about their own deaths.

Rashi aggravates the question even further. He explains that Moshe was not just praising them; he was implying that their death proved them to be even greater than Aaron and Moshe himself!

What was so praiseworthy about rushing improperly into the Holy of Holies and getting killed? And, conversely, if their actions were really so proper, then why did G-d punish them?

To answer this here is a story:

Once there was a Holy Tzadik called Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Bredichev. Although he was a great genius and scholar he was most famous for his unbounded expressions of emotional love of G-d (which caused his legendary love and praise of every Jew… even the biggest sinners)

But there were many other great Rabbis, even emotional Chassidic Rabbis, who did not appreciate this often totally unrestrained sort of behavior and they didn't keep it a secret. In fact it once resulted in his not being invited to a very important rabbinical conference. All the Holy Rabbis of Europe were to be there, but not him. His name was excluded from the list.

Our Rav Levi Yitzchak was a very humble man whose only interest in life was to serve the Creator as completely as possible and he knew that just being in the presence of these spiritual giants would teach him lessons in life that couldn't be gotten from any book.

So he went to the organizers and pleaded for his life. He would do anything for permission to attend. He swore that he would control himself with no emotional outbursts and complete adherence to any rules or orders given.

And it worked!! He got permission!

One month later he was dressed in his best entering the huge hotel ballroom. The scene before his eyes was breathtaking. Hundreds of the Holiest Jews in Europe with radiant faces and wise, infinitely deep, joyous eyes, dressed in splendid fur Shtrimels (Chassidic hats), silver-topped canes and silken coats glistening, and shining everywhere in the light of hundreds of massive, crystal chandeliers were involved in lively conversations and friendly reunions.

But despite the holiness that was calling to him, beckoning from the very air around him, Rav Levi managed to contain himself.

The massive evening prayer went without a hitch as did the evening meal and the Morning Prayer. Despite the stirring Chassidic melodies, the enthusiastic prayer and the words of Torah that were enough to make a normal Jew jump out of his skin with awe and joy Rav Levi remembered his promise and succeeded in acting exactly like everyone else.

The problem occurred in the afternoon meal when they served the Kugel (a sort of large cake made from noodles).

The waiters went from person to person with huge trays of various types of kugel; liver kugel, potato, raison, squash kugel etc. asking each person: “Nu rebbe, far vos hast do lieb” [lit. Yes Rabbi, what do you like?] (In Yiddish the word for ‘like’ is the same as ‘love’).

But when the waiter came to Rav Levi Yitzchak and asked him:

“Nu Rabbi…and what do you love?”

He closed his eyes and began swooning, mumbling to himself first quietly and then progressively louder:

“Love? Love? What do I love? What do I LOVE?! WHAT DO I LOVE??!!!”

Until, unable to contain himself any longer, he stood on his chair, jumped up on the table, completely oblivious of the bottles he was knocking down and the food he was splashing everywhere, raised his head with eyes closed and arms outstretched and longingly yelled,

“I LOVE HASHEM (G-d)!!! ONLY HASHEM!!!!”

That is what happened to Nadav and Avihu.

When they saw the chance to come 'close' to G-d and enter the Holy of Holies, they became oblivious of everything in the world, even themselves, and wanted only one thing; ONLY HaShem!!!

In Hebrew it's called 'Mesirus Nefesh'; complete self-sacrifice. And that was precisely their greatness.

They were the first to realize, actualize and even advertise, that the purpose of the Mishkan and the basis of serving the Creator is ‘MESIRUS NEFESH’… complete self-sacrifice to the Giver of the Torah. (See Tanya beginning of Chap. 19 and end of chap. 25).

It's like the story of the simple young silversmith's apprentice who, after learning the trade for years, wasn’t able to get anything done on his own. He would pound and pound on the precious metal but nothing changed form. He complained bitterly to his teacher and the problem was quickly uncovered.

It seems that every day he arrived for his smithy lesson after his teacher had the fire going. His teacher had overlooked that point. So after he taught him how to ignite the fire his pounding had results.

Similarly, Nadav and Avihu showed the Jewish people that all the laws and details of the Torah are cold and empty if the fire of ‘msirus nefesh’ is missing.

And that is why Moshe praised them.

But they were punished because they didn't think any further than just lighting the fire.

Rashi (10:2) tells us that they were drunk or they were impertinent to Moses. Other opinions say that they weren't dressed properly or weren't married.

But all opinions point to the same thing; they didn't really care about this world. They were only interested in lighting the fire and not actually doing the work; improving the world which is the goal of Judaism.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe especially stressed this in his drive to make people knowledgeable and excited about Moshiach. He called for "Unbounded, even crazy (Shtus d'kedusha), enthusiasm together with productive mature Torah action" [ Oros d'Tohu b'Kalim d'Tikun!!).

And this is the real lesson we can learn from the holiday of Pesach that we just experienced; we must use the inspiration of Leaving Egypt to inflame our hearts and emotions. But at the same time we must do all we can to bring blessing and meaning to the world with....

Moshiach NOW!!

Copyright © 1999-2017 Rabbi Tuvia Bolton. All rights reserved. No unauthorized reproduction or copying of this material shall occur without prior permission.

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