Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Shemini 5764

There are four women whose stories are connected to Shemini. The first is the shadowy Elisheva, whose name means, “My G-d is my oath”. Like most Jewish women prior to the 17th century, Elisheva is known primarily for her relationship to important men. She was the wife of Aaron, sister-in-law of Moses and the daughter of Aminadav (a leader of the tribe of Judah). Thus, she was from a distinguished family even before she married Aaron. Elisheva and Aaron had four sons: Nadav, Avihu, Eleazar and Itamar. Elisheva named her first child Nadav in honor of her father, Ami-Nadav.

There is a tradition that the Hebrew midwives Shifra and Puah were Elisheva’s mother-in-law Yocheved and her sister-in-law, Miriam. There is, however, a Talmudic opinion that Puah was actually Elisheva, rather than Miriam.

On the day the Mishkan (the portable sanctuary the Jews constructed in the desert) was consecrated, Elisheva witnessed the men in her life take prominent roles. Her husband became the High Priest. Her brother Nachshon merited to bring the first sacrifice because he was the first to step into the Red Sea before it split. Her two sons, Nadav and Avihu, became assistants to the High Priest. And her brother-in-law, Moses, was king.

It didn’t take long for Elisheva’s joy to be eclipsed by tragedy. Her two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, died as a result of their sins on the very day the Mishkan was consecrated. They perished from a supernatural fire that burned them to death while leaving their bodies intact.

The Biblical text offers us only one emotional reaction to the death of Nadav and Avihu. “And Aaron held his peace.” Aaron’s reaction was to accept G-d’s decree and to be comforted, without losing faith. But what about Elisheva’s emotional response? Despite extensive searching, I was unable to locate any reference to Elisheva’s reaction the dramatic deaths of Nadav and Avihu. The tradition is frustratingly silent about Elisheva’s emotions.

Contrast this to the story of Bruria, wife of Rabbi Meir and the most well known woman in the Talmud. Like Nadav and Avihu, the two grown sons of Bruria and Rabbi Meir died on the same day, close to the end of a Shabbat. Bruria learned of their deaths before her husband. She waited to tell him until Shabbat was completely over. Then she broke the heartbreaking news in an ingenious way, drawing on her emotional strength and knowledge of Torah to help her husband accept the death of their sons as she already had.

We can also contrast the lack of information about Elisheva’s emotional reaction to the deaths of her sons with the richness of information about the emotional life of Michal, about whom we read in the Haftorah for Shemini.

During the time in Jewish history when we were forbidden from reading from a Torah scroll, the Sages replaced each Torah reading with a Biblical reading that relates, thematically, to the banned Torah reading. In that way, those familiar with the cycle of Torah readings were reminded of the appropriate Torah portion even while prevented from actually reading it.

In this week’s Haftorah, we meet Michal, the first wife of King David, whose emotional life is richly described. More than once, the Bible tells us, “And Michal, Shaul’s daughter, loved David.” Later in their married life, while King David danced publicly in spiritual elation, Michal was embarrassed and she “despised him in her heart.”

We are left with an emotional void in the story of Elisheva in the Torah reading and a contrasting emotional richness in the story of Michal from the Haftorah. But there is at least one other way that Elisheva and Michal are connected.

According to the Arizal, a 16th century mystic, Aaron was reincarnated six times. Among his later incarnations was as Uriah the Hittite, the first husband of Batsheva (who later becomes a wife to King David). Elisheva, wife of Aaron, was reincarnated as Batsheva, wife of Uriah and later, of King David.

This correspondence between the Torah portion and the Haftorah, between Elisheva/Batsheva and Michal, who were both wives to King David, is a completely feminine connection. Like much of the study of women in Torah, it lies just below the surface, waiting to be unearthed. And it is a source of deep spiritual satisfaction now that it has been remembered.

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