Follow the Instructions | Parashat Shmini

When my children were younger I used to have pangs of anxiety around their birthdays and Hanukkah. I loved the celebration. I found great pleasure in their excitement. It was fun getting together with extended family for cake ice cream. My fear was related to the presents and three simple words: “some assembly required.”

The kids would want me to hurry with the tools and quickly put together the games and toys. After successful completion of the first hurdle – opening the packages – I would get to work on the task of assembly. Just like when I put together furniture from IKEA, there are times when I got to work too quickly; only to have to undo my mistakes and begin again: the second time paying attention to the instructions.

I must have been about ten years old when one of my teachers gave the class a particularly difficult test that was several pages long. I remember looking through the handout with horror as my anxiety grew. As I skimmed the questions I began answering those I knew – leaving those I found more difficult for the last. I was surprised at how many questions I was able to answer. I vaguely remember the teacher giving instructions about the test – but paid little attention as I wanted to get right to work.

It turns out that the last line on the final page of the test said “write your name at the top of each page and don’t answer any of the questions.” The first line of the test said “read the entire test before answering any questions.” Instructions can be important.

In this week’s Torah portion, Shmini, we read Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47 where Moses gives detailed instructions to Aaron and his sons, the priests, related to specific sacrifices and offerings they are to prepare. Moses tells them: “This is what the Lord has commanded that you do, that the Presence of the Lord may appear to you.”

The instructions are quite detailed and Aaron carefully follows them – ensuring that each step is followed correctly. Upon successful completion of this elaborate ordeal we read “

the Presence of the Lord appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces.”

Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu , were young and had not yet learned the lesson about the importance of following instructions. They did not follow the proscribed protocol for the offerings to God. When they completed their sacrifice “fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them.”

Seems to me the punishment is a bit harsh for two young priests lacking in experience. Most commentators remark that Nadav and Avihu were punished for the sin of not following instructions. Others argue they were impure and had committed other sins as well. However, we read in chapter 16 of Leviticus that Nadav and Avihu died because they got too close to God.

This aligns with others who maintain that Nadav and Avihu were actually saintly and righteous individuals who reached the highest possible level of sanctity – parallel with Moses who came “face to face” with God. They approached God with pure intent and open hearts. God was so moved as to allow them to come close. Unlike Moses, they failed to turn away. It was this mistake, according to a midrash, which led to their deaths by the Kiss of God. ”

Moses said to Aaron, “When God said ‘I shall be sanctified by those close to Me,’ I thought it referred to me or you; now I see that they are greater than both of us.”

How do we approach that which is holy in our lives? When do we concern ourselves with the details and instructions of ritual? When are we more concerned with the words of our hearts? Both paths can lead to meaning and holiness. However, when it comes to toys and IKEA furniture – I recommend following the instructions.

About the author:

Rabbi Steve Burnstein is the spiritual leader of Kehilat Birkat Shalom at Kibbutz Gezer, a regional congregation of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ). Previously, Rabbi Burnstein served as Director of Global Leadership Development and Education of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ). Rabbi Burnstein made aliya in 1996 and was the Associate Director of the Pinat Shorashim Center for Israel-Diaspora Education. Prior to that, he was an Educator at Congregation Beth Torah in Kansas City; Director of Israel Education at ACAJE in Philadelphia; and Director of Education at Israel Experts. He lives with his wife and two children on Kibbutz Gezer. 


The above was formerly published as #161 in our Torah from Around the World series.

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