Please enjoy a D’var Torah this week from Golda Kaplan, Rosh Shoafim 2017. Originally from Chicago, Golda spent six years as a camper at Ramah and this will be her fourth summer on staff. She is graduating next month from the University of Pennsylvania where she studies Sociology. In August, she will begin a year of service through AmeriCorps at a high school in Philadelphia, supporting high school juniors and seniors in the college application process.
Reflections on Parashat Shemini
by Golda Kaplan
As the year progresses and we move farther away from the simple family tree of Jacob and his twelve sons, I often forget that the Torah is ultimately a family drama. While Moses and Aaron may be leaders of the Israelites in the desert, they are also brothers. I find the familial relationships between Aaron and his sons to be crucial to understanding the story of this week’s parashah, Sh’mini.
In the most confusing and shocking scene in this week’s parsha, two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer what is described as an “aish zarah”, translated as an alien or strange fire. When they do so, God sends fire to consume them and the brothers die. This is a pretty violent end. The brothers have clearly deviated from typical sacrificial practices, but what I want to focus on is the series of verses leading up to Nadav and Avihu’s strange sacrifice. The section beforehand details Aaron preparing and performing multiple animal sacrifices. Aaron’s sons help their father: they bring him supplies, separate parts of the sacrifices, and look on as their father blesses the people. Priestly sacrifices are the family business for Aaron and his sons and the parashah shows that they are all willing to help out.
In contrast, let’s look closer at the details of Nadav and Avihu trying to make their own sacrifice to God. Rather than a malicious act, I see two brothers trying to emulate their father, a man who earlier was able to wow the people with his blessing and sacrifice – but also try to add their own flair. They act with the hope that they too can wield this power and be like their father. Their experiment comes from a place of love and appreciation. Nadav and Avihu evidently strayed too far, struggling to balance what they were taught and given by their father, and their desire to make it their own.
This resonates with my camp experience and the opportunities offered for personal exploration.
Being at camp, away from the rhythms of home life and parents, provides an incredible opportunity to actually appreciate the things that, for the rest of the year, feel so mundane. As a camper, I loved receiving letters from my parents describing their fairly boring summer days back in Chicago. I came to appreciate the fact that they wrote my initials on every sock and bottle of sunscreen.
I also came to appreciate the safe environment of camp to experiment with the familiar habits and choices of home. At camp you might realize that after all these years you actually do like green beans, or learn there’s a more efficient way to fold your t-shirts, or find a new tune for Adon Olam. Camp is a place to appreciate all that your family and home have passed down to you and to then begin your own thoughtful process of making decisions for yourself.
Nadav and Avihu may fail in walking the line between emulating their father and asserting independence, but luckily for us every summer at camp offers the opportunity to reassess this balance, recognizing where we come from while asking questions and trying new things in a supportive community.