Parashat Shemini 5776

Rabbi Janet Burden, 1 April 2016


This coming August, it will be 14 years since I stood on the bimah of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue as my dear friend and colleague, Rabbi Erlene Wahlhaus, gave me s’michah, my rabbinic ordination. She drew me close as we stood before the Ark, reaching up to take my head in her hands. It was at once an intensely private and profoundly public moment. Through her blessing, she formally inducted me into the role which I now strive with all my heart and soul to fulfil. As I stood there, a panoply of emotions washed over me. Of course I felt joy at the honour and satisfaction at the accomplishment. I felt relief that the years of work were actually culminating in something. Yet my overriding response to the occasion was what I can best describe with a Hebrew word – the word yirah. Yirah conveys both fear and awe, both terror and amazement. How was I going to live up to the task with which I was being charged? What did God really want of me?

I suppose this experience is why I have a great deal of sympathy for Aaron and his sons as we meet them in our portion today. What must they have been feeling as they set about their work for the first time? I suspect that they, too, wondered if they would be equal to the task of serving both God and the people Israel. The role is one of enormous privilege and responsibility. In this sentiment alone, perhaps, I feel comfortable claiming kinship with my brothers who served in the ancient Temple. There’s no doubt that they had it much worse, however. I simply had to stand before an assembled congregation and address them after receiving s’michah. Remember how Moses consecrated them? With anointing oil, to be sure – but also with blood. Blood was placed on Aaron’s right ear, right thumb and right toe. I can’t think of a much more graphic way of saying: pay attention to what you hear, watch what your hands do, and take care where your steps lead – for you stand at the boundary of life and death. And, as we know from the story of Aaron’s eldest sons, the implied threat was not an idle one. In the very next chapter, Nadab and Abihu offer “strange fire” and are instantly consumed by flames sent forth from the altar.

Personally, I am very glad that no one today has to bear responsibility for the task of the ancient cultic priests. What was once seen as a great loss to our people – the fall of the Temple – has proven to be our making. Once the cultic service ceased, no one needed another person to serve as an intermediary to God. Hereditary privileges and burdens were done away with, and Judaism became altogether more democratic.

New roles appeared, and new leadership models as well – including that of the rabbi, which had already begun to develop since around the turn of the millennium, in response to a growing need from a people at a cross-roads.

The rabbis from the early post-Temple period were both like and unlike rabbis as we know them today. They were the disciples of the great teachers Hillel and Shammai, both of whom belonged to the group of scholars called the Pharisees. Despite the bad press that the Pharisees received in the Christian New Testament, they were “the people’s party” of the day. They stood in clear contrast to the elitist Sadducees, who tended to be of the Jewish aristocracy and often of the priestly caste. It was the Sadducees who were more likely to collaborate with the Roman occupation, as this protected their power and status through uncertain times. But after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE (and with it, the social hierarchy), the Sadducees gradually disappeared. All of those we now refer to collectively as “the rabbis” or “our rabbinic sages” would have traced themselves directly to the Pharisaic school of thought.

To be a rabbi in those first centuries of the Common Era was primarily to be a teacher of the Oral Law, that body of teachings that was ultimately to be codified in the Mishnah of Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Nasi. Although the Mishnah is often viewed today as an early form of law code, it was really more akin to a text book or study guide. Unlike a law code, the Mishnah frequently does not give conclusive rulings. Rather, it helps the one studying it to know how to think about a particular subject. Even when it does provide a ruling, it records debates and dissenting opinions. All of these were seen to be important, as they contributed to our understanding and to the collective body of wisdom which was their fundamental goal. That is why Pirkei Avot can comment on two dissenting opinions that Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim Chayyim, “Both these and these are words of the living God.” Establishing norms of behaviour was the result of their work, not its primary function.

The rabbis’ main concern was to ascertain, as nearly as possible, how we could best fulfil the will of God. I am grateful, daily, to be part of a movement that does this with the tools of scholarship, with intellectual integrity – and with the grace of blessing and being blessed.

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