By Michael Sabani
A lot happens in this week’s Torah portion, Shemini, and there is a lot to try to understand. According to my understanding, the ONE thing that is easy to learn about the Torah is that you will always learn something new! No matter how many times you read the Torah you will always come across something new, something that you didn’t notice before, and this one little thing can change the focus of the whole portion for you. And just like life, it is often the smallest things that can make the biggest impression.
In Shemini we see Aaron and his sons officially take over as Kohanim, as priests. A fire bursts forth from G-d and consumes the offerings on the Altar, and the Shekhinah comes to dwell in the Sanctuary.
Now coming into this portion, I thought the big story was what happens next: Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu offer a “strange fire” and they die before G-d. They die. This is a big deal! The eldest sones of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, are consumed by Hashem at the time of their inauguration. There is much debate as to what actually happened, if they died because they offered an unauthorized sacrifice, or to put a positive spin on it, some interpretations are that they were so holy that G-d just snapped them up right there as a gift. Really, we don’t know why. Sometimes we don’t have a clear answer as to why things happen,. The Torah, like life, is sometimes mysterious.
So then we get to the laws of kashrus, the kosher laws. Surely, if the story of Nadav and Avihu doesn’t grab me, the laws telling us what we can and can’t eat will make a big impression. And it does, to a point. I mean, we learn in this portion about how even what we eat can be used to serve G-d, to create holiness that can sanctify our lives.
But the whole time I read this portion I kept thinking about what happens right at the beginning. Moses and Aaron are standing at the Altar, and Moses has to tell Aaron, “Come near to the Altar…”.
You see, Aaron was afraid to come near to Hashem. He still felt guilty for his part in the debacle of the golden calf. He didn’t feel worthy enough to serves as the High Priest; he knew his weaknesses and recognized where he had gone wrong and felt ashamed of his mistake.
And it’s at this point Moses tells Aaron the thing that, for me, became the new focus of the portion.
“It is precisely because you possess the attribute of shame that you have been chosen” (Degel Machneh Efraim). I had never noticed this commentary before, but it makes sense to me. I can feel that shame, that sense of not measuring up to the task G-d has put before me. It is only when we know, deeply, in the root of our being, when we have done wrong, that we can truly move beyond it. This is Aaron being forgiven, and learning how to grow. And this is what G-d wants, for us to be abel to forgive ourselves and to move forward.
How often do we feel confronted with something that we don’t think we are up to? And how often are our skills, which are not recognized by ourselves, pointed out by our brothers and sisters? Sometimes it takes another who is close to us to point out what we are truly capable of, in spite of what we may have done in the past.
I invite you to be a Moses for your brothers and sisters. Lift them up and point out to them the areas in which they are strong. They might be int he midst of a struggle you are not aware of.
On the flip side, I also invite you to be like Aaron. Listen to those who care about you, and trust that they are right when they tell you that with G-d’s help, you are strong enough for the tasks you are faced with, and learn how to grow, and move forward.