Parshat Shemini: Significance in the Details

Yigal Klein, Educational Director of the Yachad Program for Jewish Identity

Parshat Shemini centers on the terrible agony experienced upon the death of Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s two sons. The pain in their passing becomes even more significant and heart-wrenching when considering the temporal dimension, namely, the day the Tabernacle was inaugurated, and the dimension of space – the event occurred at the very heart of the most sacred place to the Jewish people. Even as we walk through holiness, exhilarated by the beauty and splendor around us, as the effects of the divine presence understandably leave us breathless, we are overcome with agony and extreme hardship with the passing of Nadav and Avihu.

Many explanations were offered for this painful death, and their greatness and fall from grace have elicited countless wake-up calls. I feel that the looming question here regards what we are meant to understand from their demise. What are Nadav and Avihu beckoning us to correct? In which aspects of our worship of God, our life’s labor, must we take greater care?

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch elaborates on this topic, underscoring in his interpretation of the verse that states that Nadav and Avihu had done something “that Hashem had not commanded,” that the sacrificial rites may not be performed arbitrarily or subjectively. Even the voluntary offerings must be performed in the prescribed fashion, “for those who offered G-d’s sacrifice wish to draw closer to Hashem, but they will only do so by heeding Hashem’s words, and accepting His commandments” (from R. Hirsch’s commentary on Leviticus 10:1).

R. Hirsch continues, elaborating that the role of the kohanim is not invent new ways to perform the rituals of the Tabernacle, but rather to give validity to G-d’s commandments. If we follow the path charted by R. Hirsch, as we perform our life’s labor, we can learn to be attentive, open our hearts to divine directives, and walk in the light of God.

Nadav and Avihu did something that teaches us that despite our eagerness to act out of the exhilaration that takes hold of us, we must always remember our commitment, the commands we must follow, and the imperative to perform all of the commandments God gave us, down to the finest details.  Many other commentators painstakingly described every minute detail of the performance of God’s commandments and the required commitment, understanding that “the devil is in the details,” even if, to our mortal eyes, these things aren’t always graspable or simple.

In his Shmona Kvatzim, Rabbi Kook writes the following: “The aspiration for great things, great creations, great sciences, and great standing will make a person devoid of content, content that forms from many tiny particles approaching unceasingly, bit by bit” (Kovetz 8, 38). In life, we often seek the “big storms,” tremendous exhilaration.  We look at different events and characters, and think to ourselves that we, too, would like to experience, to be awestruck, to be moved, and to be part of something grand and exciting. It is then that we begin to discover the great secret in the worship of Hashem, in improving our marital life, and in any other facet of life: to achieve the greatest form of excitement, we must first go through the finest details of life, advancing step by step, daily, until this progress eventually grants us those uplifting and awe-inspiring moments.

Any scientist who had ever won the Nobel prize could share this insight with us. It was only after years of meticulous work in the lab, pipetting precise quantities with the greatest of care, that they reached the summit. This is the understanding reached by every couple that invests the hard work required for a meaningful relationship, which ultimately produces a few moments of bliss and intense joy. Likewise, a kohen, who performs his duties with the utmost care and attention to detail, will have experienced a divine revelation.

I would suggest that Nadav and Avihu’s actions should not dissuade us from seeking excitement and “great lights”, or extinguish our passion or our thirst for discovering the living God. It isn’t meant to dispel any hopes for moments of greatness. Nadav and Avihu’s role is to remind us that in order to have these intense experiences, and to draw close to Hashem, we must pay attention to the path we take, to the work we must do and to the details that may seem minute to us. Ultimately, God Himself is in the details.


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