April 5, 2024 / 26 Adar II 5784

A toddler watches their parents and loved ones standing around the Shabbat candles, excited with the formality of everyone’s attention focused on the warm glow of the flames being drawn close by the motion of the encircling hands. Yet, this same toddler is chastised as they try to do the same action when they see the flame of the gas burner flickering, ready to be used to boil that pot of water… why is this so confusing?

This week’s Parashat Shemini presents a compelling study of contrasts, particularly around the theme of fire, which serves as a profound metaphor for understanding how the same action or behavior can be both beneficial and detrimental depending on its context and intent.

In Leviticus 9:24, we witness a moment of Divine approval and connection: “Fire came forth from before Gd and consumed the [people’s] burnt offering,” symbolizing Gd’s acceptance of Israel’s worship. This Divinely ordained fire represents purity, dedication, and the sanctification of the people’s offerings. It’s a moment of communal unity and Divine acknowledgment, underscoring the positive power of fire when used in accordance with Gd’s command.

Contrastingly, the subsequent verse in Leviticus 10:1 describes a tragic misuse of that same element by Nadav and Avihu, who brought forth a “foreign fire” to Gd, an action not commanded by Gd and thereby punished by death. This “foreign fire” symbolizes unsanctioned actions, personal overstepping of Divine boundaries, and the catastrophic consequences of misjudging one’s actions versus other’s needs. It starkly illustrates how actions, even those with potentially good intentions, can become negative or even destructive when they’re disconnected from the context and requirements they’re meant to serve.

This contradiction of fire’s symbolism in Parashat Shemini serves as a potent lesson in today’s social climate, where the nuances of individual relationships and contexts often become overshadowed by broad-stroke approaches to interaction and communication. Just as the sacred fire can transform from a force of Divine connection to one of Divine censure based on context and intent, so too can our actions and words be perceived vastly differently depending on the awareness and respect we accord to each person’s unique context and needs.

In fact, and this will seem particularly strange coming from the CEO of the Jewish Federation, while charitable giving is crucial for the sustainability of local Jewish agencies and organizations, active participation and advocacy bring a different, often more personal dimension of support. Engaging with a charity illustrates a commitment not just to the cause but to the individuals served by the organization—nonprofits benefiting from our community’s annual campaign range from serving our youngest to our oldest community members and including the most vulnerable among us.

Often, our natural inclination to support charities manifests through writing a check, a valuable and necessary gesture of support. However, the teachings of Parashat Shemini encourage us to broaden our perspective on assistance and engagement. Just as the Israelites’ offerings were meant to be both physical and spiritual acts of devotion, so too can our contributions to our communities extend beyond financial support. Being present, volunteering time, assuming leadership roles, or acting as ambassadors for causes we believe in can sometimes be of equal or greater value than monetary donations.

In an era where generic responses often replace genuine connection, the lesson of Nadav and Avihu’s “foreign fire” reminds us of the critical importance of tailoring our interactions to honor the distinctiveness of each relationship. The tragedy of their offering is not in the offering itself but in their failure to recognize and respect the Divine context and command, highlighting the necessity of understanding and empathy in all forms of communication and action.

As we reflect upon this week’s message, let us renew our commitment to empathy, making a concerted effort to recognize and respond to the specific needs around us. Whether it’s offering a helping hand, a kind word, or when needed, a generous check, let us strive to ensure our actions are not only well-intended but also appropriately aligned with the needs and contexts of those we seek to support. By doing so, we honor the sacred uniqueness of every individual and relationship, fostering a world of deeper understanding and connection. Because we are… 


Shabbat Shalom.