Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Parshat Shmini

Parsha of the Week - Happiness and Fear.
Rabbi David Sedley

This week we read about the dedication of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). This was mentioned at the end of Shemot, as the culmination of the redemption from Egypt. Not only were the Jews free physically, but spiritually they had reached the level whereby G-d's Shechina (Divine Presence) was able to dwell amongst them. The completion of the Mishkan, and the Shechina that dwelt there were also signs that the nation had been forgiven for the sin of the Golden Calf. It was a momentous day when G-d's Presence first rested upon the Mishkan. "The people saw [that G-d's Presence had entered the Mishkan] and they rejoiced and fell upon their faces" (Vayikra 9; 24).
Yet this joyous occasion was marred by the death of two of Aharon's sons, Nadav and Avihu. "They brought to G-d an alien fire that He had not commanded. A fire came forth from before G-d and consumed them, and they died before G-d." (ibid. 10; 1-2). However, their death was as a result of an incident that had happened almost a year earlier. When Moshe ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, the elders ascended part of the way with him. "Moshe, Aharon, Nadav, Avihu and seventy of the elders of Israel ascended Against the great men of the Children of Israel He did not stretch out His hand, for they gazed at G-d, yet they ate and drank" (Shemot 24; 10-11). Rashi explains that they gazed at G-d as they were eating and drinking, without showing proper respect, and for this they incurred the penalty of death.
The eating and drinking at Mount Sinai was not out of gluttony, but was an expression of the joy they felt at that momentous occasion. It was this same motivation that caused Nadav and Avihu to bring the alien fire that led to their deaths. The Midrash (Torat Cohanim 32) states that they were infused with happiness, and when they saw the fire descend from heaven, they wanted to add 'love to love', and brought their own fire. At both of these happiest of days Nadav and Avihu (and the rest of the nation) acted out of love for G-d, trying to draw closer to the Divine Presence. Yet they were punished for this.
In addition to the mitzvah to love G-d there is a commandment to fear Him. In the Haggadah we read "'With great fear' - this is the revelation of the Divine Presence." Each Amida concludes with the words, "May it be Your will that the Temple be rebuilt speedily and may we serve You there with fear.". The Mitzvah of coming to Jerusalem to behold the Divine Presence on each festival is called Re'iah, which is closely related to the word Yirah meaning fear.
The Rambam (Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 2; 2) explains the path of come to love and fear G-d. When a person sees the wonder of creation they feel a desire to love and become close to G-d. This makes them realise how insignificant and imperfect they are in comparison to Him. So here is love which leads to fear. However, when a person is confronted with a direct revelation of G-d the effect is the opposite. Their first reaction should be reverence and fear, and only through that come to a love of G-d.
The happiest of biblical festivals was Succot, which is referred to in the prayers as simply "The time of our happiness". However the rejoicing of Succot can only follow from the fear of judgment of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But even then the rejoicing in the Temple was tempered with fear, as the Mishna states, "The pious and righteous would dance before the people holding fiery torches in their hands" (Succah 5; 4). Only those who were already filled with reverence were allowed to rejoice in overt happiness.
With this knowledge we can resolve an apparent contradiction in the Psalms. In Psalm 2 (verse 11) King David states, "Serve G-d with fear, and rejoice with trembling". Yet in Psalm 100 (verse 2) he wrote, "Serve G-d with gladness, come before Him with joyous song". The context of the former is G-d judging the nations, through revelation of His Presence, which calls for rejoicing tinged with fear. However, in the latter, David finds G-d in nature, through the wonders of creation. This 'hidden' revelation of G-d causes rejoicing and love, and only after will we become filled with fear of G-d.

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