This week’s parasha, Sh’mini means “eighth.” It refers to the eighth day of the opening of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), which was actually its “launch” day, after a week of introductory rites carried out by Moses, Aaron and other priests.
On this “launch” day Moses commands Aaron and the people to bring sacrifices to the Mishkan. Aaron and his sons prepare the animal sacrifices as they are commanded, and we are told that the fire went out from before God and consumed the burnt offering and the fats which were on the altar, and all the people witnesses and celebrated, and they fell on their faces.
The joy that the people experienced at that moment was a culmination of what the work on the Mishkan was all about, serving God and receiving God’s approval. As the jubilation and moment were being celebrated, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, added their own “dedication” to the fire. They brought incense, placed it in a receptacle and put it into the fire. The fire and the incense mixed to create a new result, which God did not command them to do.
As a result, God kills Nadav and Avihu, using the very fire they had created.
There are many interpretations on the story of Nadav and Avihu; relating to challenges, drunkedness, pure stupidity. Whatever the exact reason for their behaviour was, it had dire results for them. Moreover, they had ruined a day of celebration for their father, the day he was to be inaugurated as High Priest. In this week’s parasha, we also learn about some of the laws of kashrut, explaining which animals, fish, birds and insects – yes, some insects are kosher – and which other living creatures are not.
Kashrut has always been seen as one of the more distinctive forms of defining Judaism. Each of us has our own interpretation of what we believe is correct or incorrect, and subsequently, we may follow different ideals when practising kashrut. While there are many other references in the Torah to kashrut, this week’s parasha is one of the only references that mentions solely living beings. It lists which animals and fish can be eaten, and which are forbidden.
Both the story of Nadav and Avihu, and the section on kashrut symbolise a very important general aspect of Judaism; intention. Nadav and Avihu’s intentions clearly showed that they were not of the calibre one expects from priests, let alone the two oldest sons of Aaron, the first High Priest.
Kashrut is also about intention. The choice to keep kosher, and what level of kashrut to keep is motivated by what our intentions are.
Do we keep kosher because the Torah and our sages tell us to, or is it because we have a desire to understand what the laws of kashrut and their implications on our lives mean to us before we adhere to them?
We have the choice, we can decide whether we practice our Judaism like Nadav and Avihu, where the intention is to defy at every opportunity.
Or, we can base our decisions on knowledge and good intent. We just need to ask ourselves, why are we doing that which we are doing, and why do we choose not to do that which we don’t do?
In the end, good intentions lead to honorable actions. Honorable actions lead to moral standards. Moral standards are what we should aim to achieve, no matter what we do.