Parashat Shemini starts off by discussing the day in which Aharon and the Kohanim received their rights and obligations to work in the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Soon after we read of the death of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, who died bringing an incense offering before Hashem. We read of Aharon’s response to the death of his sons and how Aharon is commanded and encouraged to continue with the Korbanot (sacrifices) and the inauguration of the Mishkan. The end of the Parasha discusses the laws of Kashrut (dietary laws).
On the surface there seems little connection between the laws of Kashrut, the Miskan and the death of Aharon’s sons. However, looking at them more closely, there are a number of lessons that we can derive from these interesting events.
The Parasha opens with the words “Vayehi bayom hashmini” (Vayikra 9:1) “It was on the eighth day…” Which eighth day is the Torah referring to? The Torah is referring to the eighth day when Aharon took over the work of the Mishkan from Moshe, and the Kohanim began to perform the services in the Mishkan. Prior to that day, on the first seven days of the inauguration of the Mishkan, the tasks were performed by Moshe. Rav David Feinstein asks why does the Torah refer to this occasion as the “eighth day”, when it was really the first day?! The first seven days were really a rehearsal. Every day during those seven days they put up the Mishkan and took it down and the Shechina, Hashem’s Divine Presence, did not rest within it. This day should therefore have been called day one, yet the Torah emphasizes the eighth day “yom hashemini”. What message can we learn from this? It teaches us that when it comes to spiritual matters, the preparation is almost as important as the final thing. Chazal teach us that a person who strives to do a Mitzvah, receives s”char, reward, even if the Mitzvah was not completed.
What lesson can we learn from the deaths of Nadav and Avihu? How does this relate to us today? Rav Eliyahu Dessler zt”l writes in his book Michtav M’ Eliyahu that although Nadav and Avihu were great Zaddikim they died because they had “ga”avah” (haughtiness) in their hearts. Here in this Parasha we see an example of this ga”avah: They did not consult with Moshe or Aharon before bringing the incense offering. There is a violation of issuing a halachic ruling before one’s teacher. This event teaches us that haughtiness is a human trait that we must strive to overcome.
Further on in the Parsha, after the death of Aharon’s sons, we see just the opposite trait in Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon. They both display no ga”avah and are in fact examples of total modesty. Aharon refrains from performing part of the Avodah (bringing sacrificial offerings) because he feels that he has sinned at Chet Ha”egel (sin of the golden calf) and is not worthy. And as we know, “Moshe was exceedingly humble, more than any person on the face of the earth” (Bamidbar 12:3). Moshe, the greatest leader of the Jewish people, was able to live to that high level of modesty. It takes much self disipline and constraint and working on one’s middot to reach such levels of anavah (humbleness).
The Parasha ends with the laws of Kashrut (eating kosher foods) which at first seem unconnected to the previous events. Rabbi Yissocher Frand explains that these laws of Kashrut are also found in the Rambam’s Sefer Kedusha. This book contains the laws of forbidden foods as well as the laws of Issurey Bi”ah (forbidden sexual relationships). The Rambam indicates that observing both of these laws makes a person kadosh (holy). These laws are really a test of one”s self discipline. Just as to observe these laws one has to work on one”s self control, so to with ga”avah one has to work on oneself to reach high spiritual levels by trying to remove haughtiness from within. This is not a simple thing to do and it takes much striving and practice.
Our encouragement comes from the Mishkan that was put up and taken down on all seven days proceeding the eighth day. This comes to show us that our efforts and practice count, and only by this active striving can we reach our ultimate goals.