Torah Reflections: April 16 – 22, 2017

Sh’mini

Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47

Merging With The Light

As our weekly reading resumes, following the end of Passover, we are met by one of the most mesmerizing stories in Torah: the fiery death of Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu. Most rabbis explain their deaths as Divine punishment and as a cautionary tale “against spontaneous worship… and the unrestrained desire to ascend to forbidden heights” as Nehama Leibovitz highlights in her commentary. Due to the complexity of the Hebrew, however, no one can fully grasp the ultimate meaning of the story.

Moses and Aharon then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of the Eternal appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from the Presence of the Eternal and consumed the burnt offering… And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces. Now Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and brought-near, in the Presence of the Eternal, a strange fire, such as he had not commanded them. And fire came forth from within the Presence of the Eternal and consumed them, so that they died within the Presence of the Eternal. Then Moses said to Aharon: This is what the Eternal meant by saying: Through those near to me I will be known as Holy… [Lev. 9:23-10:3]

With the nearness of the holiday of Lag BaOmer, the fire that consumed Nadav and Avihu connected me to the legend of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. In Israel, every year, on the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer (Lag BaOmer,) people gather around bonfires to mark in festive ways the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. In the northern Galilee town of Meron, 300,000 people make a pilgrimage to his grave on that day. Why? The legend describes Rabbi Bar Yochai as a towering mystical figure; the author of the Zohar (the Book of Splendor)—the seminal composition of kabbalistic thought—and perhaps the only Jewish mystic known to have spent years meditating in a cave after fleeing for his life from the Roman armies. Once out of his hiding, it is told that Bar Yochai began to reveal the deepest secrets concerning God and Creation to his disciples. Rabbi Abba, one of his students, became the scribe for Bar Yochai’s oral teachings. As Rabbi Bar Yochai was on his death bed, revelation after revelation came pouring out of him at an increasingly faster pace, as if in a race against time. On his last day, a force within compelled him to share all the mystical teachings he had yet to reveal. The sun was sinking, Rabbi Abba was writing, but there was too much to write down. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai kept speaking, Rabbi Abba kept writing, the rest of the students saw the sun standing still, refusing to set. Suddenly a fire began burning all around the house. No one could enter, no one could leave—Bar Yochai dictating with urgency, Rabbi Abba writing furiously. Finally, Bar Yochai finished, and a fire-like radiance, a brilliant light, filled the house as his soul departed his body.

In those last moments of his legendary life, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai merged with the One Light of Being. He remembered the Light he had always been, and became that Light. He had drawn near to the Presence of the Eternal and was transformed into a strange fire, a radiance, a burst of Light. The mythical story of Nadav and Avihu speaks of a similar experience. Aharon’s two sons, just like Bar Yochai, are described by some rabbinic commentators as “towering personalities… [and] men of exalted saintliness.” These two holy beings can’t help but be transformed in the overwhelming Presence of the Eternal, and the strange fire they bring near is the Light of Being they awaken to in that moment. They, like Bar Yochai, die in a burst of Light, merging with the One Light of Being in a spiritual ecstatic self combustion. But legend or myth is not to be taken literally. These stories act as mirrors to deeper spiritual truths. What is described here might be an experience of the “little self” combusting in the awesome awakening to one’s own Light. What is consumed in such a moment of en-light-enment—outshined by the Light of the Divine Presence—is that separate sense of self. But what is revealed, born in that same moment, is one’s true identity, the true Light of one’s Infinite Being.

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