BY RABBI ALVIN SUGARMAN / AJT //
In the beginning of this week’s parsha portion, Shemini, the Torah lists the sacrifices that the Israelites were to bring before the Tent of Meeting. It is stated that these sacrifices must happen at this specific time, “For today the L-rd will appear to you,” and the people complied with Moses‘s request by placing their sacrifices on the altar.
In accordance, Aaron’s sons helped their father carry out the sacrificial rituals. Afterward, Aaron blessed the community of Israel before the Tent of Meeting, before he and Moses entered the Tent. Leviticus 9:23-24 describes their exit:
“…when they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of the L-rd appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from before the L-rd and consumed the burnt offering…And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces.”
Immediately following this description of G-d making known His presence, the Torah says that two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, made an offering before the L-rd which G-d had not instructed them to do. This action on their part must have really made G-d quite angry, for “…fire came forth from the L-rd and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the L-rd (Leviticus 10:2).”
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I am going to assume that many of you reading these words live your lives informed by the dictates of human reasoning. Of course, that is not to infer in any way the absence of faith, for I believe that faith in something beyond us is what gives our lives ultimate meaning.
But I also believe that many of us struggle when our rational selves honestly confront some of the words of our Torah. I think a portion of us can no longer accept many of the actions attributed to G-d in our scriptures.
We have no need whatsoever for G-d to make His presence known by showing off His power with magical, consuming fires issuing down from the heavens – much less fire that kills two of Aaron’s sons who had offended G-d by offering a sacrifice that He did not ask for.
Perhaps the biblical authors felt it necessary to proclaim G-d’s presence in our lives by filling the Bible with stories of miracles wrought by a supernatural being breaking into the natural order. But in the 21st century – in a post-Holocaust world – these accounts of G-d breaking into the natural world simply do not cohere with our lived experience; or, for that matter, with the lived history of our world.
There are countless other ways that G-d shows His presence to us. Does not nature itself proclaim the signature of G-d?
Have you ever been fortunate enough to feel the touch of an infant grasping your finger? Have you not gazed in awe at the unspeakable beauty of a sunrise and sunset? Along with Heschel, have you not been amazed that we are amazed?
Have you not held the hand of someone you loved? Have you ever felt the joy of a wagging puppy tail, marveled at the melody of a singing bird? Have you ever seen the waddle of a toddler taking her first steps?
There are myriad ways that G-d manifests in our lives, making for practically infinite evidence of our Creator’s presence surrounding us. We need only look beyond the miracles offered us in our scriptures. Just open your eyes and behold them with gratitude…
Rabbi Alvin Sugarman is rabbi emeritus at The Temple and a member of the Atlanta Rabbinic Association.