Parashat Shemini: Approaching God (and living to tell the tale)
Parashat Shemini is famous for the dramatic story of Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu, their “strange fire” which God had not commanded, and their precipitous demise. The haftarah selection for the week, the story of “peretz Uzah” (II Sam. 6:1-19), contains what seems to be a companion story of the precipitous death of Uzzah, who reached out to steady the aron, the ark of the covenant, while David was having it repatriated. At first glance, both stories are object lessons in what happens if you get too close to God’s holy objects without following proper protocol: the people who do so (Nadav and Avihu; Uzzah) get zapped. But I believe that a closer look at the details of the haftarah, including the end of Chapter 6 (verses 20-24) that are not included in the haftarah, complicates this picture and provides not just an object lesson of what not to do, but perhaps a model of the right way for a layperson to approach God.
After the death of Uzzah, “David was afraid of the LORD that day; he said, “How can I let the Ark of the LORD come to me?”” (II Sam 6:9). David diverted the aron elsewhere, but after seeing the blessings that came to its new guardians David decided to try again. The first, abortive processional involved festivities, but the second attempt is described with some new details: “David whirled with all his might (mekharker be-khol oz) before the LORD; David was girt with a linen ephod (hagur ephod bad)” (6:14). These two details may help us answer David’s initial worry of “how can the ark of the Lord come to me?”
First, David whirled with all his might. The word for might, oz, appears exactly twice in the book of Shmuel. The first is I Sam 2:10, where, after Hannah has delivered her long-prayed-for son, Shemuel, to the mishkan, she concludes her exultant prayer, “He will give strength unto His king (ve-yiten oz le-malko), And exalt the horn of His anointed.” After Hannah’s prayer, one can see the rest of the book of Shmuel as a winding and often difficult path to establish the kingship of which she prayed. The second and last appearance of oz in the book is in our story, as David whirls with all his might. Whatever David is doing, we have a hint that it is especially kingly.
Second, David is wearing a linen ephod. Two other people in Tanakh before David have worn an ephod using the same verb, h.g.r. In the book of Shemuel alef, Shmuel himself is described using the same three word phrase, hagur ephod bad (I Sam 2:18), as he serves the high priest Eili in the mishkan. (Indeed, that phrase appears only twice, regarding Shmuel and David, in all of Tanakh.) This connection raises some concerns, as we might be wary that David is trying to usurp the priesthood in addition to his kingship. This concern is only amplified if we know that the other person to wear, h.g.r., an ephod, is Aharon in parashat Tzav (8:7), in the days of consecration immediately preceding the dramatic Eighth day that occupies our parashah. (This is the only mention of an ephod in sefer Vayikra.)
Is David in danger of over-stepping his prescribed roles, much as Nadav and Avihu did? Here the episode at the end of the chapter, which is omitted from the haftarah, may prove instructive. While David was dancing vigorously, his wife “Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window and saw King David leaping and whirling before the LORD; and she despised him for it (6:10).” When David returned home, they fought about it. Michal asked David sarcastically, “‘Didn’t the king of Israel do himself honor today (mah nikhbad ha-yom)—exposing himself today in the sight of the slavegirls of his subjects, as one of the riffraff might expose himself!’” (6:20). David answered, “‘It was before the LORD who chose me instead of your father and all his family and appointed me ruler over the LORD’s people Israel! I will dance before the LORD, and dishonor myself even more, and be low in my own esteem’” (6:21-22). David does not approach God with arrogance or presumption, but with self-effacement. David accepts personal dishonor as a price for honoring God, even as he recognizes (with his characteristic shrewdness) that this very act of self-effacement may bring him honor among his subjects, “‘but among the slavegirls that you speak of I will be honored (imam ikavedah).’”
David’s phrasing, imam ikavedah, recalls Moshe’s statement to Aharon in our parashah: “‘This is what the LORD meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people (ve-al penei kol ha-am ekaved)’” (10:3).
Moshe’s precise intentions are somewhat obscure, but the simple meaning of his last phrase seems to be that the terror of Nadav and Avihu’s deaths will generate a sense of awe for God among the people (see Ibn Ezra ad loc). There is another interpretation, however. Rashbam and Chizkuni understand the glory, kavod, that comes to God out of the incident to flow not directly from the deaths, but from Aharon’s reaction. In Rashbam’s words: “This is the glory of God’s presence (shechinah) – that he (Aharon) sees his sons dead and he desists from his mourning in the service of his creator.” Aharon demonstrates God’s glory by putting the Tabernacle service above his family concerns. This is perhaps similar to how David demonstrates God’s glory by displaying intense joy to the point of self-effacement.
On the surface level, the haftarah and the parashah are companion stories because of the parallel fates of Nadav and Avihu and of Uzzah. But perhaps there is another set of parallel characters: Aharon and David. Aharon, by following the precise script and choreography Moshe laid out, may approach God and welcome God’s glory (kavod, see, e.g., 9:24). So too David shows “how can the ark of the Lord come to me?” by putting God’s honor before his own.
But whereas Aharon’s approach was carefully choreographed, David’s is spontaneous, almost spastic if we listen to the words used to describe it – mefazes umekharker (6:16). Perhaps this is the difference between priests and kings. Although both Aharon and David wear an ephod, Aharon the priest must follow precise instructions and may not innovate – and his sons, who followed their passions for God’s service, ended up dead. For David the king, innovation and intuition in the service of God are essential.
In our contemporary life we have ritual areas where the Aharon mode of extreme caution may be appropriate, and we have others that require David-like intuition and self-expression. May we be blessed with the wisdom to know which is which.