April 17, 2020 – Shemini

Shabbat Message from Alden Solovy

Shabbat Shalom.

I’m Alden Solovy, a liturgist living in Jerusalem. I’ll be your scholar-in-residence in February of 2020. I’m also going to be teaching a class on Zoom starting next week. More about that in a minute. Let’s first talk about this week’s Torah portion, Shemini, a Torah portion rich with pomp, circumstance… and disaster… 

The Levites and Aaron, the High Priest, are dedicating the newly-built tabernacle, the moveable “dwelling” of G-d’s glory in the desert. The preparations are described in seven Torah portions, the longest prelude to anything in Torah. Now it’s the eighth day of a ceremony to consecrate the new priests.

Imagine the scene. The priests are in the newly-constructed tabernacle. They are wearing their new vestments. They’ve been ordained with pomp and circumstance. They bring ritual sacrifices to the alter. Aaron blesses the people. Moses and Aaron go into the Tent of Meeting and when they emerge, they bless the people again. The Presence of G-d appears to all the people. The Fire of G-d appears and consumes the sacrifices on the alter. The people prostrate themselves before G-d’s Presence and sing praises.  

Then, something goes terribly wrong. Acting on their own volition, two of Aaron’s sons – Nadab and Abihu – each take a fire pan, lay incense on it, and offer what’s called in Torah an אֵשׁ זָרָה‬, eish zarah, an ‘alien fire,’ acting without instruction, bringing an offering G-d had not commanded. And G-d sent fire to consume them.

Imagine the horror, the shock. A fire from G-d appears twice. First to consume the sacrifices off the altar; then, two verses later, to consume two of Aaron’s sons. Although it appears that Nadab and Abinu were struck down for doing something potentially beautiful – spontaneously expressing their love for G-d – the text implies that’s not what was happening.

Remember, immediately after the sacrifices are consumed off the alter, the people fall on their faces and sing praises. G-d didn’t command that prayer. The people acted in spontaneous love. G-d accepts these prayers. Perhaps that was the point of an eight-day festival, preceded by detail after detail of preparation: to create a moment of pure love and connection between G-d and the people.

When G-d appeared, when G-d consumed the sacrifices on the alter, when the people fell to their faces and sang praise… that was a moment of completion. Perfect. Whole. Shalem. A first-of-its kind spiritual denouement.

Nadab and Abihu’s actions distracted from a sacred moment of love and communion between G-d and the entire people of Israel. Their actions were self-centered, diminishing the moment. They did what they wanted, rather than what the moment needed. We expect more of our spiritual leaders… and of ourselves.

We are called to understand the impact of our spiritual actions. Our actions can create holiness. And our actions can undercut holiness. We are called to a higher level of personal, communal and spiritual awareness.

Perhaps that’s what we’re doing, right here, right now, with Zoom t’fillah, streaming services, online classes, video drashes… we’re finding a way to use whatever tools we can to create holiness. Let that be our mission, and let that be G-d’s will.

So… I’ll be teaching a four-week class on the Siddur, the prayer book. We’ll start by first looking at the Siddur as a unit, then we’ll do a deep dive into some of our favorite prayers from Mishkan T’fillah. I hope to see many of you there.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some of you in 2018 when I visited as a scholar in residence. Starting on Wednesday, we’ll renew those connections and create new ones in anticipation of my visit next year…

Let’s close with a prayer from my book This Grateful Heart:
Shabbat is the place
Where time and space meet,
Without questioning
How the beginning began
Or how the ending ends.

Shabbat is the place
Where song and silence meet,
Blessing each other
With the gift of rest.

Shabbat is the place
Where dreams and angels meet,
Yearning together
For a world of peace.

Shabbat is the place
Where holiness and eternity meet,
Praying together
For the world to come.


Blessings from Jerusalem. Stay safe and healthy.

Shabbat Shalom.

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