21 Apr 2017

Haftara for Shemini 5777: Shared Spaces | WITH AUDIO READING

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Dear Readers,

I want to thank you for sharing these insights on the haftara with me each week. The haftara essays tend to be longer than my previous parasha essays and knowing that our lives are busy, reading may not always be the best way for us to absorb the information. Sometimes hearing it better suits us. So I am delighted to offer an audio option. Each week you will receive a link to an audio reading of the essay. The readers may vary from week to week (stay tuned!). No better way to begin than with the eloquent reading of Caroline Jackson Levy, Business leader, consultant in Organisational Behavioural Psychology and a member of The S&P Sephardi Community. I would like to thank Caroline for taking the time to read the essay so beautifully.


Haftara for Shemini 5777: Shared Spaces

“Man—of all ages and cultures—is confronted with the solution of one and the same question: the question of how to overcome separateness, how to achieve union, how to transcend one’s own individual life and find atonement.”

— Erich Fromm

Samuel 6:1-19 (Sephardim)


After David is crowned king in Hebron he conquers Jerusalem and aims to transfer the Ark of the Covenant from the home of Abinadab in Baalim where it had been kept since previous wars, during the time of Samuel the prophet. The king wished to build a permanent Temple in Jerusalem in which the Ark would be housed in its Holy of Holies.

David assembles 30,000 choice soldiers to accompany the Ark on its journey. A special cart is made for it and the sons of Abinadab, Uzza and Ahio, accompany it; Ahio in the front and Uzza beside it. The celebratory procession is abruptly halted when the oxen pulling the cart misstep and Uzzah reaches out his hand to hold the Ark steady. ‘God struck him down on the spot’.

David is upset by the tragedy and stops the proceedings. He stores the Ark in the house of Obed-Edom.

Upon hearing that Obed-Edom and his entire house had been blessed due to the Ark’s presence among them, David took it as a signal from God to continue its transfer up to Jerusalem. David dances with all his might in a linen tunic before God.

It is emphasised repeatedly that he danced in the presence of God. His wife, Queen Mikhal chastises him for this seemingly immodest behaviour. David responds sharply to her that he would dance as he did and more, unlike her father, and lower himself before the presence of God and the people, and in that humility he says, is the truest honour.


To be alone is to be tortured. Feeling separate and disconnected from others is an anguish that touches the depths of the human soul. As Erich Fromm’s quote implies, the sense that we don’t belong brings with it feelings of inadequacy and shame and therefore, genuine connection and union with others brings us atonement; literally, at one-ment.

At Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, California[1] the inmates held in solitary confinement are locked in 8’ x 10’ concrete cells for 22.5 hours of the day. For one hour they are allowed to be in a small, concrete exercise yard. For these inmates there are no windows, let alone phone calls or contact visits. They are removed from any interaction with other human beings. They are divorced from nature. In the words of one inmate the effect of being completely removed from any interaction with the outside world creates ‘pain, agony, frustration, hopelessness — continuous silent screaming’. It breaks the human spirit. This, of course, is the extreme, yet all of us fear isolation. We struggle against our own separateness and yearn for belonging more than anything else.

Genuinely achieving attachment with someone — anyone — is a considerable challenge. Most of our relationships are casual where the personal boundaries only slightly brush by each other. Real relationships are not easy to maintain, and require a great deal of time, effort, focus and attention. Relationships between two people are precious if, for no other reason, than that they are rare.

Acquire for yourself a friend.  (Abot, 1:6)

When the attempt is made, however, and the shared areas of the concentric circles of self overlap, in order for it to be sustained vulnerability, trust, faithfulness and truth must be equally present in both people. If we do not share at the same level the mutual space becomes toxic, tainted by protectiveness, doubt, cheating, and lies.

The difficulty lies in our ability to extend our own boundaries and achieve connection with another person without violating theirs and damaging our own. Inevitably, our attempts to do so in life are rife with pain and heartbreak. We yearn to emerge from our isolation and connect with people knowing that our lives will be enhanced through the interaction. Yet, all too often one or both individuals lack the necessary qualities for true connection.

To love someone without sensitivity to their needs or situation will only sabotage connection. Even when we use the words “I love you”, if our thinking is rooted only in our own personal needs, what we are saying instead is “it is important for me that you accept the way I feel about you.” Rather than waiting to be welcomed in to another person’s life, in our desperate desire to avoid being alone, we barge our way in, breaching boundaries and violating personal space. We may believe that we are acting out of a real need for love and connection but approaching relationships in this way can never result in a mature, mutual unity.

To achieve sincere union with someone else requires from us compassion and empathy. Only with these attributes can the concentric circles of our selves overlay in harmony and peace. Compassion and empathy come from the Greek pathos literally, suffering. To have compassion (Latin, compati – to suffer with) is to suffer with someone; to feel what they feel and be sensitive to their pains and needs. To have empathy (Greek, em + pathos – in feeling) is to understand and ‘be in’ the feelings of another person.

Being mature enough to recognise our own emotions, feelings, wants and needs, enables us to feel compassion and empathy for others. It is for this reason that we must spend time putting ourselves ‘in other people’s shoes’ in order to appreciate how we would feel if we found ourselves in their circumstances. If we fail to reach such understanding, or worse, we are altogether oblivious of it, we fail to find love and belonging.

This mis-connect and its circumstances are the central theme of our parasha and haftara.

In our parasha the sons of Aharon, Nadab and Abihu are passionate[2], sharp[3] and brazen[4] young kohanim (priests). On the inaugural day of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) a day described as God’s happiest since creation, they overstep the boundaries in their interactions with God and do not survive the breach. In their fervour they allow themselves to violate the boundary with God through what they believed was an act of love — but it was one sided and did not include God’s interests in the equation.

Now Aharon’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, took each man his pan, and, placing fire in them…brought near before the presence of God foreign fire such as He had not commanded them. (Lev., 10:1)

Because this was God and not another human being the trespass of the boundary meant that they were now standing in God’s presence without invitation, opening or signal. God was there and no room had been made for another.

A fire[5] went out from the presence of God and consumed them, so that they died, before the presence of God[6].

There is a tradition passed down that the trespass of Nadab and Abihu did not begin at the inauguration of the Mishkan but on the very day that the Torah was given at Sinai. The elders were invited to ascend the mountain and God revealed himself to them.

Then Moshe and Aharon, Nadab and Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel went up and they saw the God of Israel: beneath His feet (was something) like the work of sapphire blocks — like the substance of the heaven in its purity. (Ex., 24:9-10)

Yet against the close ones of the Children of Israel He did not send forth His hand. (24:11)

Rabbenu Bahye writes[7] that the fact that God did not ‘send forth His hand against them’ expresses that God was not restricting His exposure to them. He was allowing them a deep intimacy and did not keep them from gazing at Him — He did not withhold. But in that setting even God’s own vulnerability was thrown back in His face. Nadab and Abihu treated it as if it was nothing special. They went back to having their lunch.

They beheld God, and ate and drank. (ibid.)

God took the risk of vulnerability in that setting and was disrespected. He did not leave Himself exposed in the same way at the inauguration of the Mishkan. Still, Nadab and Abihu acted in the same brazen manner and in the existential clash their existence could not stand in the place of God’s own.

This episode is essentially replayed in uncanny detail down to the very names in our haftara when King David wishes to bring the Holy Ark of the Covenant down to Jerusalem.

And David arose and went…to bring up…the Ark of God, over which was called the name of God of the Forces-On-High, [The One] Seated on the Kerubim.

They mounted the Ark of God on a new wagon and transported it from the house of Abinadab[8], which is in Giv’a, while Uzza and Ahyo, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new wagon.” (6:2-3)

Uzza, (his name literally meaning ‘brazen’) is chosen to accompany the Ark as its companion. Yet, instead of being the walking companion of the living God he acts as His caretaker.

They came to the threshing-floor of Nakhon,
and Uzza stretched out [his hand] to the Ark of God and took hold of it,
for the oxen had slipped. God’s anger flared up at Uzza, and God struck him down there because of [his] carelessness, so that he died there, beside the Ark of God. (6:6-7)

Here too the mutuality necessary was marred by stepping into a place and role that was not his. Uzza saw the Ark as a piece of special furniture rather than the physical seat of God’s presence. He felt that he had to control the Ark rather than faithfully escort it.  This disregard for God’s presence was the act of carelessness.

King David was deeply upset by the event and it is in his reaction that we find some resolution to the stories. He questioned his own motives for bringing the Ark of God down to Jerusalem in the first place. Was it what he wanted or was it something he was doing together with God?

And David was agitated over [the fact] that God had burst forth against Uzza,
And David was fearful of God on that day;
he said: How is it that the Ark of God should come to me?
And David would not remove the Ark of God from him to the City of David 6:8-10)

David halts the proceedings indefinitely and houses the Ark with a Levite family. It is only when he hears of a signal from God that he proceeds with bringing the Ark down to Jerusalem.

It was told to King David, saying: God has blessed the house of Oved-Edom and all that is his, on account of the Ark of God; so David went and brought up the Ark of God from the house of Oved-Edom to the City of David, with rejoicing. (6:12)

David learned that the relationship with God must be mutual. We must hear from God in order to act in a manner that is compassionate and empathic with Him, and look for the openings as they are presented to us in Torah. Every mitsvah is another opportunity to connect with God. Not on our terms but to share with Him and seek a mutuality. To connect with God requires attentiveness, listening and study. We learn to study His words and listen to the world that He created with an open mind and minimal assumptions. Indeed, this is how we learn to connect with others as well.

This time David relaxes his own boundaries and becomes vulnerable in the presence of the Ark and the people. There are no airs about the king in this procession with the Holy Ark. He is a humble servant.

And David was whirling with all [his] might in the presence of God;
David was girded with [nothing more than] a linen tunic. (6:14)

His wife, Queen Mikhal, the daughter of the protective and at times, paranoid King Shaul, did not approve of her husband’s conduct.

Mikhal daughter of Sha’ul was looking out through the window:
she saw King David leaping and whirling in the presence of God,
and she scorned him in her heart. (6:16)

The King responds in unequivocal terms insisting that his way in life, especially as king, will be through vulnerability and compassion. He will not live a life isolated but one that seeks connection with the people.

Mikhal daughter of Sha’ul went out to meet David
and said: How honourable today, is the king of Israel,
who has exposed himself today before the eyes of his servants’ maids—
like one of [those] empty-men exposes himself!”
David said to Mikhal:
In the presence of God, who chose me over your father and over all his house, to commission me as leader over the people of God, over Israel:
I’ll dance in the presence of God,
and will hold-myself-lightly more than this;
I’ll be lowly in my own eyes—
with the serving-maids of whom you spoke,
with them I will be honoured! (6:20-22)

In our lives we can choose to protect ourselves with walls and boundaries, but in doing so we close ourselves off from a world of connection and belonging. We incarcerate ourselves into cells of emotional solitary confinement. We protect ourselves to death. It is with respect, sensitivity, compassion and empathy that we learn to extend our boundaries and accommodate others, so that in the space that we share together we experience the uniqueness and thrill of another. It is in that space that we find exhilaration in the diversity of God’s expressions and we find ourselves amidst a  diverse and exciting world that was made for us to love.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joseph Dweck


[1] https://aeon.co/videos/continuously-silently-screaming-the-profound-agony-of-solitary-confinement

[2] Sifra, Shemini, 32

[3] Zohar, III:61b

[4] Sanhedrin, 52b

[5] Similar imagery is used when the Hakhamim speak of the relationship between a Rav and his pupil in Pirke Abot. The pupil must be exceedingly careful not to cross the boundaries set by the Rav in the relationship lest he get ‘burned’. See Rambam’s commentary on Abot, 2:13: ‘Stand at the boundary which they set for you and do not increase your closeness with them beyond the closeness to which they have brought you so that they do not lose their regard for you and cause their love to turn to hate…it is compared to one who warms himself by the fire — with proper distance the warmth is enjoyable and its light, beneficial. But if one is not careful and gets too close, he gets burned’.

[6] Note the emphasis of ‘God’s presence’ that is disregarded by the young kohanim. It is used three times in the narrative.

[7] Mishpatim 24:11, s.v. לא שלח ידו – וע״ד הקבלה. Cf. Rashi, ibid.

[8] ‘Abinadab’ is a curious compound of the names of ‘Nadab’ and ‘Abi-hu’