Red Heifer

It should have been the most joyous day since G-d had given us the Torah some ten months earlier.

After months of preparing to build the Mishkan and its many accoutrements, after the euphoria of collecting the gold, silver, copper, wool, linen, goat-hair, ram-skins, acacia wood, olive oil, spices, and many precious stones and dedicating them all to the service of G-d, after the excitement of actually constructing the Mishkan and seeing it and its appurtenances taking form –

– after all this, there was a week-long dress rehearsal.

For the final seven days of Adar, from the 23rd to the 30th, Aaron and his sons had stayed at the Ohel Mo’ed, while every day Moshe erected the Mishkan, performed the entire Mishkan service, and then took the Mishkan down again.

Parashat Sh’mini opens on the 1st of Nissan:

“It was on the eighth day that Moshe called Aaron and his sons and the Elders of Israel…” (Leviticus 9:1). This was the climax of the inauguration of the Mishkan, and the beginning of its regular functioning.

It should have been the most joyous day since G-d had given us the Torah…but tragedy struck in the midst of the ecstatic celebrations:

“Each of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, took his fire-pan, placed fire in them, and placed incense on it; and they offered before Hashem alien fire that He had not commanded them. And fire went forth from before Hashem and consumed them, and they died before Hashem” (Leviticus 10:1-2).

There are many different explanations as to what this “alien fire” was and why they died. The general trend is that in their (commendable) enthusiasm for G-d’s Service and their burning desire to come closer to G-d and to achieve greater holiness, they overstepped the boundaries of the acceptable.

(Later, in Leviticus 16:1, looking back on this sorry episode, the Torah recalls the time “when they came near before Hashem and they died”.)

-Maybe they entered the Holy of Holies, which is forbidden to all except the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur (Vayikra Rabbah 20:8 and Sifra Sh’mini, Introduction part 34).

-Maybe their intentions were improperly directed not towards the perfect Unity of Hashem (His attribute of Mercy), but towards His attribute of Justice, which was why they were judged harshly and punished (Ramban, commentary to Leviticus 10:2).

-Maybe it was because they remembered the earlier charge, “The sons of Aaron the Kohen shall put fire on the Altar” (Leviticus 1:7), which they interpreted to mean: Even though fire comes down from Heaven, nevertheless it is a mitzvah to bring their own fire (Yoma 53a). And even though their interpretation was correct, they were punished for rendering this decision in front of their rabbi, Moshe, instead of deferring to him (Vayikra Rabbah 20:6 and Rashi to Yoma 53a s.v. מצוה להביא מן ההדיוט).

-Maybe it was “because they entered the Ohel Mo’ed drunk with wine” (Vayikra Rabbah 12:1 and 5, Esther Rabbah 5:1).

-Maybe it was because they were boastful, bragging that “our father’s brother is a king, our mother’s brother is a prince, our father is Kohen Gadol, and we are both Deputy Kohen Gadol; which woman can be worthy of [marrying] us?!” And therefore they never married and many women who yearned to marry them therefore also remained unmarried. Centuries later, King David would allude to this lyrically by writing, “Fire consumed His young men, and His virgins had no marriage-song” (Psalms 78:63) (Vayikra Rabbah 20:10).

Whatever the reason, this tragedy was not to interfere with the national celebration:

“Moshe called Mishael and Elzaphan, sons of Aaron’s uncle Uziel, and said to them: Approach, lift your brethren from the midst of the Sanctuary to outside the camp” (Leviticus 10:4), “like a man who says to his friend, Remove this dead body from in front of the mourner! How long can this mourner continue grieving?!” (Vayikra Rabbah 20:4).

The Midrash implies that they removed the bodies so as to let Aaron and his family recover from their grief sooner.

Rashi (commentary to Leviticus 10:4), however, paraphrases and changes this Midrash: “Like a man who says to his friend, Remove this dead body from in front of the bride, so as not to disturb the celebration”, implying that it was so as not to impinge on the nation’s celebration.

Maybe Rashi refers here to the Talmudic dictum that “if a dead body and a bride are both being escorted and the two processions approach each other, the funeral procession makes way for the bridal procession because honouring the living takes precedence over honouring the dead” (Semachot 11:6), which is the halachah in practice (Rambam, Laws of Mourning 14:8 and Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 360:1).

In the event, Mishael and Elzaphan (who were Levites and not Kohanim, which was why they were allowed to carry dead bodies) were charged to remove their cousins’ bodies.

The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) notes that the word קִרְבוּ (approach) in the phrase “Approach, lift your brethren…” (Leviticus 10:4) has two cantillation marks over it, תְּ֠לִישָׁא-גְדוֹלָה (t’lisha-gedolah) and גֵּרְשַׁ֞יִם (gershayyim): hence it is written קִ֠רְב֞וּ (the t’lisha-gedolah before the gershayyim, but according to the Massoret, the reader chants the gershayyim before the t’lisha-gedolah).

The Ba’al ha-Turim explains: “There are two cantillation marks, indicating that they did not approach them into the Heichal (Inner Sanctum); rather, they cast iron hooks in and pulled them out”.

This is a reference to the Sifra (Shemini 1:35), which records two different opinions of where exactly they died:

“Rabbi Eliezer says, They died outside [of the Holy of Holies], in a place where Levites are permitted to enter… But in that case, why does it say ‘they died before Hashem’? – An angel smote them, and he pushed them out. Rabbi Akiva says, They died inside [the Holy of Holies], as it says ‘they died before Hashem’. But in that case, why does it say ‘they approached and lifted them by their Tunics’ (Leviticus 10:5)? – To indicate that they cast iron hooks in and pulled them out”.

So according to the Ba’al ha-Turim, the double cantillation suggests that Mishael and Elzaphan kept a certain distance from their task, only fulfilling it with a tool.

Both the תְּ֠לִישָׁא-גְדוֹלָה and the גֵּרְשַׁ֞יִם are “separative notes” (they indicate a slight pause in the sentence, approximately similar to a comma in English). They both indicate a form of removal: telisha connotes tearing off, and gershayyim connotes expulsion.

Maybe the Ba’al ha-Turim relies on the names and functions of these two cantillation marks: קִרְבוּ – approach, tear them away and expel them from where they are now, but nevertheless keep a certain distance from the bodies.

This double-cantillation of תְּ֠לִישָׁא-גְדוֹלָה and גֵּרְשַׁ֞יִם on a single word is extremely rare: it occurs only one other time in the Torah – the word זֶ֠֞ה (this one): “זֶ֠֞ה – This one [Noah] will bring us respite from our work and from the travail of our hands” (Genesis 5:29). Maybe the Ba’al ha-Turim is also making an oblique reference to Noah: he, too, kept a certain distance from his task, fulfilling it only half-heartedly. Ideally he should have saved all of humanity by warning them of impending destruction and inspiring them to repent of their evil; instead he saved only himself and his immediate family, but failed to save the rest of humanity.

Both Noah performing the task G-d had given him, and Mishael and Elzaphan performing the task G-d had given them, had to tear themselves apart from their environments – Noah in order to maintain his righteousness among the evil that was prevalent in his generations, and Mishael and Elzaphan in order to bury their cousins in the midst of the national celebration without dampening the general joy.

This year 5782, as in about two-thirds of all leap years, Parashat Sh’mini coincides with Shabbat Parah, which is the Shabbat which directly precedes Shabbat Ha-Chodesh, which in turn is the Shabbat which either coincides with or immediately precedes Rosh Chodesh Nisan.

The Maftir-reading for Shabbat Parah is the quintessential חֹק, chok – the statute for which human reason can find no rationale – of the Red Cow (Numbers 19). The Red Cow purifies the Jew from spiritual defilement contracted from coming into contact with a human corpse.

An unblemished Red Cow which had never been given a yoke was to be slaughtered outside the camp; it was then burnt entirely – its hide, its flesh, its blood, its dung; then the Kohen would take cedar-wood, hyssop, and crimson thread, and throw those into the pyre.

For seven days before the Red Cow was burnt, the Kohen who was to perform the ceremony would be removed from his house and from his wife (Rambam, Laws of the Red Cow 2:2).

And when the Kohen performed this rite, he would thereby become ritually impure until evening, during which time he would have to remain outside the camp, separated from his brethren. Then another man, who was ritually pure, would gather the ashes and store them in a pure place; he, too, would become impure until evening. The ashes would then be stored up to be used as and when needed to purify any Jew from ritual impurity caused by contact with the corpse of a dead Jew.

The Torah commands that this purification ceremony be performed “outside of the camp” (Numbers 19:3). In later generations, when the Mishkan in the desert had been replaced with the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the purification ceremony would be performed outside of the walls of Jerusalem, on the Mount of Olives (Mishnah, Middot 1:3, 2:4 and Parah 3:6; Gemara, Yoma 16a; Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shekalim 4:8 and Laws of the Red Cow 3:1).

Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura (commentary to Mishnah Megillah 3:4) explains that we read this section on this Shabbat “to warn Israel to purify themselves so that they will be able to sacrifice the Paschal Lamb in purity”. That is to say, the Red Cow is the necessary prelude to Pesach, because by its ashes the Jewish pilgrims to Jerusalem become purified, and consequently can enter the Holy Temple to offer both the Korban Pesach and the Korban Chagigah.

The tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu in Parashat Sh’mini warn of the terrible danger of humans following their own decrees instead of G-d’s, even when they have the holiest and most exalted of intentions. Parashat Parah teaches us that G-d, and only G-d, decrees how purification can occur, that human reason cannot fathom pure spirituality.

That is to say, both Parashat Sh’mini and Parashat Parah tell us that there are certain decisions and processes which are best left to G-d to decree and define, and that we humans interfere with them at our peril. This may be the reason that even though the commandment of the Red Cow appears in Parashat Chukkat (Numbers 19), long after Parashat Sh’mini, G-d actually commanded it at the time when the Mishkan was erected, very shortly before Nadav and Avihu died.

(For the chronology, see Gittin 60a-b and Yerushalmi Megillah 3:5.)

Nadav and Avihu should have understood from the mitzvah of the Red Cow that their limited human understanding did not allow them to fathom G-d’s reasoning, and certainly not to interfere with what G-d had commanded.

For sure, enthusiasm and spontaneity, individualism and creativity, have their place in Judaism, in worship of G-d. But Parashat Parah teaches us that just as we cannot fathom the mitzvot with our limited human intellectual resources, we certainly cannot invent new mitzvot or new ways of fulfilling the mitzvot.

And Parashat Shmini teaches us how tragic the results can be when individuals – even the greatest of individuals – try to do so.