Parshah Summary – P’shat (literal level)
The parshah opens with the eighth day (yom hashmini) of the inauguration ceremony for Aaron and his sons to begin officiating as the kohanim (priests). In a dramatic appearance of Divine power, a fire streams forth to consume the offerings on the altar, and the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, comes to dwell in the Sanctuary. In their enthusiasm, Aaron’s two elder sons, Nadav and Avihu, rush forward to offer aysh zarah – “strange fire.” They are consumed by the fire and perish, yet Aaron remains silent in face of his tragedy.
Moses and Aaron subsequently disagree as to a point of law regarding the offerings, but Moses ultimately concedes that Aaron is in the right. The laws of kashrut are given, identifying the animal species permissible and forbidden for consumption. Land animals may be eaten only if they have split hooves and also chew their cud; fish must have fins and scales; a list of non-kosher birds is given, and a list of the kosher insects, which include four different types of locusts…
Torah of Awakening
הַיּ֔וֹם יְהֹוָ֖ה נִרְאָ֥ה אֲלֵיכֶֽם׃
וַתֵּ֥צֵא אֵ֛שׁ מִלִּפְנֵ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה וַתֹּ֣אכַל אוֹתָ֑ם וַיָּמֻ֖תוּ לִפְנֵ֥י יְהֹוָֽה׃
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן הוּא֩ אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֨ר יְהֹוָ֤ה לֵאמֹר֙ בִּקְרֹבַ֣י אֶקָּדֵ֔שׁ וְעַל־פְּנֵ֥י כׇל־הָעָ֖ם אֶכָּבֵ֑ד וַיִּדֹּ֖ם אַהֲרֹֽן׃
“Today the Divine will appear to you!”
And fire came forth from Hashem and consumed them; thus they died before Hashem. Then Moses said to Aaron, “It is as Hashem spoke, saying: ‘Through those near to Me I am sanctified, And before all the people I am glorified.’” And Aaron was silent…
- Vayikra (Leviticus) 9:4, 10:2-3 Parshat Shmini
There is a story of the Hasidic master Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, the Kotsker Rebbe. One day, the son-in-law of Reb Shlomo of Radomsk was visiting him. The Kotsker asked his guest to please tell some Torah from his saintly father-in-law Reb Shlomo, to which he replied with this teaching: “When Aaron lost his two sons, the Torah records his praise, saying: וַיִּדֹּ֖ם אַהֲרֹֽן Aharon was silent, because he was able to accept the intense pain of his misfortune with equanimity. But King David surpassed him and reached an even higher level, as he says in Psalm 30: לְמַֽעַן יְזַמֶּרְךָ כָבוֹד וְלֹא יִדֹּם so that I may sing of Your glory and NOT be silent – for even in times of great distress he would still praise the Divine.”
This extreme teaching points to a universal truth – it is not primarily our circumstances and happenings that define our experience, but our minds. It also hints at the two basic practices for learning to use our minds:
וַיִּדֹּ֖ם אַהֲרֹֽן – Aaron was silent… The silence of Aaron hints at meditation. Through meditation, we can learn to embrace whatever pain arises without resistance and free our minds from excess thought. As the mind becomes more still and spacious, we become free from conditioned, time-bound experience, coming to dwell more and more in the spaciousness of the Timeless Present.
לְמַֽעַן יְזַמֶּרְךָ כָבוֹד וְלֹא יִדֹּם – so that I may sing of Your glory and not be silent… The singing of David hints at prayer. In prayer, that sacred dimension revealed in meditation helps to build our inner world of experience as a conscious expression of the sacred, rather than an unconscious expression of our conditioning. These two basic practices – meditation and prayer – first strip away our unconscious and unintentional conditioning so that the sacred might be revealed; and second, they draw forth the nourishment of the sacred into expression, rebuilding our inner world in Its Image.
וַיְהִי֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֔י קָרָ֣א מֹשֶׁ֔ה לְאַהֲרֹ֖ן וּלְבָנָ֑יו וּלְזִקְנֵ֖י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ – On the eighth day, Moses called to Aaron and his sons, and to the elders of Israel… The number eight symbolizes infinity, both in its Arabic shape and in its Hebrew meaning as the number that transcends seven, which is the number of finite creation. One of the names of God in Kabbalah is Ayn Sof, which also means infinity – literally, “there is no limit.” Thus, the Infinite appears to the Israelites בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁמִינ֔י – on the “Day of Infinity.” And when is this “Day of Infinity” as it applies to each of us?
הַיּ֔וֹם יְהֹוָ֖ה נִרְאָ֥ה אֲלֵיכֶֽם׃ – Today the Divine will appear to you! Today, of course, means Now. In the subsiding of thought, there is the subsiding of time. In the subsiding of time, there is the blossoming of the only Reality there is – the Reality of this moment, this One and Only moment. This moment is not static or fixed. Ever changing, it is Ayn Sof, without limit, inseparable from past and future, yet also unbound by past and future; when we get free from the burden of time created by thought, we tap into the infinite potential of the Ayn Sof.
יי נִרְאָ֥ה – The Divine will appear… The word נִרְאָ֥ה nirah, “appear,” is related to יִראָה yirah, “awe.” The Divine Name יְ–הֹ–וָ–ה Yod-Hei-Vav-Hei is related to the verb “to be,” לִהיוֹת lihyot. In other words, the “appearance of the Divine” is simply a way of describing a relationship with Existence based on awe and wonder, which are inherent qualities of consciousness when it is free from the burden of excessive thought. We can awaken awe through meditation and express it through prayer. Or, we can work in the opposite direction, awakening awe and wonder by reminding ourselves that Reality is inherently unknowable, a Mystery that transcends all understanding. This is the Path of ר Reish, which means both “head” and “beginning,” hinting that our “heads” have the power to transcend the limitations of thought, so that we may know this moment as a New Beginning, pregnant with the potential of the Ayn Sof. This is also the spirit of Pesakh, during which the practice of refraining from hameitz (leavened foods) ritually connects us to that radiant spaciousness of the Unconditioned, prior to the “rising dough” of thought. In this time of the Festival of Liberation, may we awaken once again to the bright and radiant simplicity of Being, going out of narrowness and into the spacious wilderness of the Present…
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