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    The chutzpah of Uzzah – Sh’mini

    The haftarah tells a story of joy marred by tragedy. So does the sidra.

    In the sidra it is two of the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, who misconduct themselves in the Sanctuary by bringing “strange fire” (Lev. 10:1) and suffer terrible punishment in the form of death by fire; in the haftarah it is Uzzah the son of Avinadav who touches the Ark of the Lord and dies instantly.

    Though the nature of the “strange fire” in the sidra is not spelled out, and the sages suggested a number of possibilities, the sin in both stories is the same – behaving with undue familiarity towards the people’s sancta.

    The people who frequent the Sanctuary and deal on a daily basis with sacred objects are tempted to feel so much at home with their environment that they can relax the normal standards of respectful behaviour.

    It still happens. People who forget to conduct themselves properly towards the Torah scroll, towards the place of worship and even towards the rabbi – theirs is the sin of Nadav, Avihu and Uzzah. They may not be struck down from Heaven, but they have still committed a grave transgression.

    It is not only the over-familiar behaviour of the type described in the Biblical texts but the inappropriate laughing and joking that pay no regard to where they are, but these days even the use of mobile phones during prayers (giving people the benefit of the doubt, let us say this refers to weekdays but I am afraid I have seen it on Shabbat too).

    The beginning of the Shulchan Aruch reminds us that if we would not conduct ourselves in an improper way in the presence of a ruler, all the more so should we be scrupulously reverent in the presence of the Holy One, blessed be He.

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