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Respecting Boundaries

This week's haftorah selection is concerned with the process of returning the Aron haElohim, the Ark of God, from its temporary quarters outside of Jerusalem to its new home within the City of David. For King David and thirty thousand of his men, (6:1) this journey begins with everyone full of joy and excitement. The mood changes dramatically shortly after the procession begins when the oxen pulling the wagon that holds the Ark of God stumbles. Uzzah, one of the two sons of Abinadab the man who guarded the Ark while its new abode was being prepared, reached out his hand to steady the teetering Ark. At this "YHVH grew furious with Uzzah and God struck him down on the spot" (6:7).

What are we to make of Uzzah's untimely and violent death as a result of touching the Ark? Rashi attempts to decipher meaning from this by mentioning a cryptic talmudic passage that teaches that when God wants to protect the Ark no human intervention is needed. Therefore, Uzzah "sinned" because he assumed he was needed to protect the Ark from falling. In other words, his "sin" was that he lacked confidence in the efficacy of God to safeguard the Ark. Another rabbinic explanation states that though Uzzah "sinned" in touching the Ark, "he was accompanying the Ark and the Ark is eternal, he too would partake of eternal life" (The Haftorah Commentary, Plaut, 263). Both of these rabbinical explanations are offered without any real textual basis.

It would appear that Uzzah's only "sin", despite his noble intention, was to breach the boundary of the sacred Ark of the Eternal and touch it when he was not supposed to. Perhaps, then, from this dramatic lesson we learn that even during periods of great joy boundaries must be respected.

Moreover, boundaries and their sacrosanct nature are the major themes of the accompanying Torah portion as well. Shemini opens with the story of Aaron's two sons bringing an unofficial offer to the altar and then being struck down by a strange fire, just as Uzzah was in the haftorah. The remainder of the Torah portion then deals almost exclusively with a discussion of the permitted and prohibited foods, i.e., the laws of Kashrut, the paradigmatic example of ritual boundary. At the conclusion of parshat Shemini and the discourse on kashrut we are told that these teachings are for us in order to make ourselves holy (11:44-45). These divergent yet juxtaposed examples of boundaries highlight our need for them in order to define who and/or what we are. When we violate them we put ourselves at risk.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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