Whiplash and Endurance

Rabbi Aviva Richman

Parashat Shemini

It is hard to imagine a parashah more devastating than Shemini, or more of a testament to the stamina of enduring relationship despite all. When we experience the events of this day through the inner worlds of Aharon and his wife Elisheva, there is much to learn about relationship that persists through guilt, anxiety, and loss.

The last time we saw Aharon and sacrifices, it was at the altar built for the golden calf (Exodus 32:4-6). Aharon called a holiday with sacrifices brought to a strange god he fashioned with his own hands. He witnessed the subsequent rupture: tablets broken, bodies slain. Now, he has spent seven days inside the newly constructed mishkan (tabernacle) solely in observation, hands still, watching Moshe bring sacrifices on an altar built at God’s bidding instead of in response to the people’s frenzy. Finally on day eight, Aharon may step into action, to serve at this sacred, rather than profane, altar. The first sacrifice he is told to bring is a calf (עגל) as a sin offering (Leviticus 9:2), glaringly reminiscent of the golden calf.1

Midrash relates that Aharon is racked with anxiety as he brings these korbanot (Sifra Mekhilta de-Millu’im 2). When God’s presence doesn’t immediately emerge, Aharon becomes intensely distressed, saying to himself: “I know that God is angry at me—it’s my fault the divine presence didn’t come down.”2 What Aharon hoped would be a source of comfort and reassurance now turns into cause for shame. The midrash continues: Moshe and Aharon pray together for God’s presence to come. At first, they achieve a perfect counterbalance to the sin of the golden calf. They built a structure exactly as God commanded, instead of in defiance of God; they offered sacrifices God wants, instead of sacrifices of their own doing; and they sensed God’s manifest presence and blessing, instead of God’s distancing and harsh punishment. But in the same breath,3 this moment of reassurance for Aharon turns into a nightmare. When the divine fire consumes Nadav and Avihu, it isn’t only tragic because what could be more tragic than losing children? It is tragic also because of the piercing irony. The fire that was meant to reassure Aharon that his sin offerings were accepted and his relationship with God restored instead becomes a slap in the face. Aharon sees his own failures entrenched in the behavior of his children, who offered a “strange fire.” The divine fire that accepted his sin offering turns into the fire of divine wrath, inflicting immediate punishment for an irredeemable sin.

When considered in light of Aharon’s anxiety about the golden calf and his hope for forgiveness, Moshe’s cryptic response after Nadav and Avihu’s death takes on profound meaning. Moshe refuses to let Aharon see this as a punishment for a reenactment of his own sin, God’s mocking rejection of his sin offering. Nadav and Avihu are not sinners; they wanted to come close to God. This was a sanctification, not desecration, of God’s name (Leviticus 10:4). And when Moshe tells Aharon and his sons to stay inside the mishkan (10:7), it conveys that these deaths are not a sign of rejection and punishment. God wants to hold Aharon close even in these tragic circumstances.4 When we feel we have really messed up, like Aharon in the golden calf, or when we face disaster, like Aharon suddenly losing his sons, Shemini invites us to imagine what it looks like to stay inside the possibility of relationship, rather than run away. Just hearing the words “don’t leave” offers a pathway towards hanging on and finding support, and an alternative to the kind of self-blame that might result in total alienation.

A parallel dive into Elisheva’s inner experience leads us into the turmoil of great joy and profound loss. One midrash (Midrash Mishlei 31:5) describes the honor that encompassed Elisheva on this day as her close relatives rose to positions of great stature, ascribing to her the verse in Proverbs (31:25): “She is clothed with strength and splendor; she looks to the future cheerfully (עז והדר לבושה ותשחק ליום אחרון).” Yet, a parallel midrash takes an entirely different turn (Kohelet Rabbah 2:2). Casting a shadow on the glory and confident joy of Proverbs, it ascribes to Elisheva a verse that undermines joy entirely: “Of revelry I said, ‘It’s mad!’ Of merriment, ‘What good is that?’” (Ecclesiastes 2:2).5 The midrash declares:

Kohelet Rabbah 2:2

How mixed is the joke that the attribute of judgment played on Elisheva the daughter of Aminadav!… Her two sons were made officials of the priesthood. But when they went inside to offer incense without permission, they were burnt up, and her joy was turned into mourning.6

 

We see here a wholly cynical reading of joy. When her two sons perish on the day of her greatest joy, Elisheva learns that it is never safe to rejoice. Instead of Elisheva rejoicing (ותשחק), joy devolves into a cruel joke (שחוק). Joy and laughter become a mockery of her life and her dreams.

We could hold up one of these midrashim at the expense of the other, but we can learn more from living in the tension between the two. Rather than optimistic naivete, the Proverbs midrash can be seen as offering a complex response to Ecclesiastes’ cynicism. Even though the attribute of judgment played a “joke” (שחוק) on Elisheva on that eighth day, Elisheva knows that ultimately she will rejoice again (ותשחק ליום אחרון). Elisheva reserves the confidence of the last laugh, a hard-won joy that is not ignorant of pain.

One contemporary scholar explores this tension in Elisheva’s experience in poetic form:7

Always changing, changing always;

nothing stays the same.

Prepare for the sharp turn,

The deep drop,

The meteoric rise.

A child breathes, stops breathing;

Breathes, stops breathing.

The sacred offering is acceptable;

The sacred offering is unacceptable.

 

I know what God wants from me,

I don't know.

I know what I want from myself,

I don't know.

I laugh, question

I weep, question

laugh, weep

laugh, weep

Laugh.

 

Penina Adelman frames the intensity of Elisheva’s joy and loss in a context that moves beyond the narrow confines of the mishkan and the tragedy of the eighth day. Elisheva offers a perspective on how to endure the whiplash of life’s sharp turns. The last word is a hopeful laugh, with the resonance of Proverb’s resounding reassurance: ותשחק ליום אחרון

Parashat Shemini does not offer easy answers, but when we look closely at the inner experiences of Aharon and Elisheva on this eighth day, the mishkan becomes a container for our relationship with God that can hold our feelings of guilt, hope, joy, and loss. Aharon and Elisheva offer two models for a relationship with God built on endurance, not in spite of but through the intensity of life. God bids Aharon to stay close in the mishkan. Elisheva’s deep laughter endures through time. May their fortitude make us stronger.

Shabbat Shalom.


1 See the Rashi on this verse (לְהוֹדִיעַ שֶׁכִּפֵּר לוֹ הַקָּבָּ"ה עַל יְדֵי עֵגֶל זֶה עַל מַעֲשֵׂה הָעֵגֶל שֶׁעָשָֹה) and in the Sifra Mekhilta de-Millu’im 2 (יבא עגל ויכפר על מעשה עגל).

"ויבא משה ואהרן אל אהל מועד". כיון שראה אהרן שקרבו כל הקרבנות ונעשו כל המעשים ולא ירדה שכינה לישראל היה עומד ומצטער. אמר "יודע אני שכעס עלי המקום. בשבילי לא ירדה שכינה לישראל". אמר לו "משה אחי כך עשית לי, שנכנסתי ונתביישתי ולא ירדה שכינה לישראל". מיד נכנס משה עמו ובקשו רחמים וירדה שכינה לישראל. לכך נאמר "ויבא משה ואהרן אל אהל מועד".

Indeed, Rashbam thinks verses 9:24 and 10:1 should be read in stereo rather than in sequence.

4 This is how Vayikra Rabbah (10:3) understands the instruction קח את אהרן (Leviticus 8:2). There, God says to Aharon: “חַיֶּיךָ שֶׁמִּכָּל שִׁבְטוֹ שֶׁל לֵוִי לֹא נִבְחַר לִכְהֻנָּה גְדוֹלָה אֶלָּא אַתָּה”.

לִשְׂח֖וֹק אָמַ֣רְתִּי מְהוֹלָ֑ל וּלְשִׂמְחָ֖ה מַה־זֹּ֥ה עֹשָֽׂה׃

6 מה מעורבב השחוק ששחקה מדת הדין על אלישבע בת עמינדב משה יבמה מלך, נחשון אחיה נשיא ראש כל הנשיאים, אהרן בעלה כהן מלובש אבני אפוד, שני בניה סגני כהונה, וכיון שנכנסו להקטיר שלא ברשות נשרפו ונהפכה שמחתה לאבל.

7 Penina Adelman, Praise Her Works, pp. 136-138.