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Shemini – A thought for the week by Michael Lewis

With the Sedra this week we come to the very middle of the Torah. We begin with Moses instructing Aaron and his four sons, Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar together with the Elders of Israel in the performance of the sacrifices.

Aarons’ first two sons, Nadab and Abihu, had accompanied Moses onto Mount Sinai (where they saw God on a pavement of Sapphires). They would go on to be consumed with fire because they offered אֵ֣שׁ זָרָ֔ה (foreign fire).


The last part of the Sedra sets out not just kosher and non-kosher food but also the laws of purity. Whatever the rationale might be behind the laws of kashrut what we eat has an impact on how we live and reflects our values. We are being instructed to differentiate; to define ourselves as Jews.

The question is often asked; why were Nadab and Abihu punished so severely? Was it for their motives or them physically carrying out the deed of offering the strange fire?

They were “enthusiasts”, but not in the way we now describe such individuals. (The noun enthusiasm comes from the Greek word enthousiasmos, meaning “possessed by a god, inspired.”) Such people, full of religious passion, believe that God inspires them. They may claim to be “holy” but they are also potentially dangerous. Claiming to represent the only way to serve God can lead to despising those Jews for whom their Judaism is a matter of ongoing, lifetime engagement with the world.

Freedom to question is part of our nature but defining ourselves also means setting boundaries. There will always be the challenge of defining ourselves in the modern world whilst holding on to our history and our core. Do we define our practice solely by reference to other times and places or do we heed the advice to “seek the Judge who is in your day”. Which Judges should we listen to? (There was a time when Chicken and Turkey were considered non-kosher!)

It has been said that ”it is not easy to be a Jew”. Being inspired by God whilst balancing law and custom together with a search for and respect for our boundaries has been a fundamental guide to how we survive.

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