Parshat Shemini describes the inauguration of the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle that the Israelites built to bring the Divine presence into their midst.
Aaron, as the newly consecrated High Priest, leads the final ceremony, which reaches its climax when a heavenly fire shoots out of the Tent of Meeting to consume the sacrifices that he has prepared on the altar. The people respond by falling to their faces, shouting.
Meanwhile, Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, have taken their fire pans and offered incense. The same conflagration that consumes their father’s offerings engulfs them along with it.
Moses jumps into action, ordering the removal of the bodies and warns Aaron and his remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, against interrupting the inauguration ceremony by going into mourning. The Israelites will mourn on their behalf.
Then, suddenly, the story breaks.
God speaks, addressing Aaron directly.
וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר יְהוָ֔ה אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֖ן לֵאמֹֽר׃
And the LORD spoke to Aaron, saying:Leviticus 10:8
This is unusual. On only two other occasions in the Torah does God speak directly to Aaron, both in Numbers, chapter 18. Usually, God speaks to Aaron through Moses. And this is highly significant. Almost all of the rules pertaining to the priesthood are delivered to the Israelites collectively. There is no secret manual of sacrifices to which only the priests are privy. This contrasts with other ancient rites in which that esoteric material is kept secret from the general public.
So if God is speaking directly to Aaron, there must be something special about what comes next.
We might expect God to say something about the tragedy that has just befallen Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. Maybe offer comfort. Or provide an explanation for what just happened
But no, instead God delivers instructions against drinking alchohol while performing priestly duties.
יַ֣יִן וְשֵׁכָ֞ר אַל־תֵּ֣שְׁתְּ ׀ אַתָּ֣ה ׀ וּבָנֶ֣יךָ אִתָּ֗ךְ בְּבֹאֲכֶ֛ם אֶל־אֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵ֖ד וְלֹ֣א תָמֻ֑תוּ חֻקַּ֥ת עוֹלָ֖ם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶֽם׃
Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. This is a law for all time throughout the ages,Leviticus 10:9
Midrashim and commentaries try to find connections between this prohibition and the tragedy of Nadav and Avihu. One solution claims that Nadav and Avihu’s mistake is that they were drunk when they made their incense offerings. But there is no indication that the esh zarah, the strange fire, that they brought had anything to do with drunkenness.
Another commentator suggests that it is a warning to Aaron and his surviving children not to drown their sorrows in drink. But again, nothing in the text suggests that this is a temptation under consideration.
God’s instructions to Aaron continues, although the syntax is strange. The sentence begins with an infinitive. It makes the Hebrew feel like a continuation from a different speech.
וּֽלֲהַבְדִּ֔יל בֵּ֥ין הַקֹּ֖דֶשׁ וּבֵ֣ין הַחֹ֑ל וּבֵ֥ין הַטָּמֵ֖א וּבֵ֥ין הַטָּהֽוֹר׃ וּלְהוֹרֹ֖ת אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אֵ֚ת כָּל־הַ֣חֻקִּ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֧ר יְהוָ֛ה אֲלֵיהֶ֖ם בְּיַד־מֹשֶֽׁה׃
And to distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean; and to teach the Israelites all the laws which the LORD has imparted to them through Moses.Leviticus 10:10-11
Rashi, somewhat awkwardly, connects this passage to the prohibition against serving while intoxicated. In other words, you have to stay sober so that you will be able to properly distinguish between “the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean.”
Or perhaps it should be read as an empahtic, and not directly connected to the preceding verse. וּֽלֲהַבְדִּ֔יל The essential duty of the priesthood is “to distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean and to teach the Israelites” all of God’s laws.
We see here an inner and an outer focus. The priests have jobs themselves to do. They are tasked with maintaining separation within the sanctuary on behalf of the community. While everyone knows the rules, only the priests have to concern themselves with fulfilling them. Of the Torah’s 613 commandments, somewhere between 201 and 293 of them only apply when the Temple is standing.
But the priests also have an outward-facing role. They are teachers. According to Deuteronomy (17:7-9), the priests serve as judges, deciding legal disputes and interpreting God’s laws when questions arise.
In the midst of their inauguration, just after tragedy strikes, God speaks to Aaron directly to summarize the essential role of the priesthood.
You may remember a passage from Exodus, when the Israelites recieved the Torah at Mount Sinai. They are instructed to be a “kingdom of priests, a holy people.” And so we see that the role of Aaron and his offspring may be seen as a means to that ultimate end.
You may have recognized the language in what God tells Aaron. וּֽלֲהַבְדִּ֔יל בֵּ֥ין הַקֹּ֖דֶשׁ וּבֵ֣ין הַחֹ֑ל ul’havdil bein hakodesh uvein hachol — “and to distinguish between the sacred and the profane.”
We use these words in the blessing for Havdallah. As Shabbat ends, we quote God’s directions to Aaron. But instead of the priests having a set of narrow responsibilities for keeping sacred apart from profane, pure from impure, the words undergo a cosmic reformulation.
It is now God who makes this distinction:
Praised are You, Adonai our God, sovereign of the universe, who distinguishes between the sacred and the profane, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between the seventh day and the six days of creation. Praised are You, Adonai, who distinguishes between sacred and profane.
All of creation: time, space, people, point toward these distinctions.
If that is the ultimate goal, perhaps that explains why God interrupts the disastrous inauguration ceremony to remind Aaron, and us, what it is all about. Right now, everything is a mess.
Leviticus 1-16 (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries) Hardcover – December 1, 1998
Pure and impure, sacred and profane — all are mixed up. That is why we need the priesthood: to perform the job in the sacred Temple, and to teach the people how to live in a world in which the proper balance is maintained.
But eventually we will become worthy of the title, a “kingdom of priests, a holy nation.” We remind ourselves of that every week, when we mark the transition from sacred to profane. The Sabbath we have just experienced, a taste of the world to come, is our sample for what a world in balance could be like.
Leviticus 1-16 (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries) by Jacob Milgrom