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Parashat Shemini- Respect and Reverence in the Synagogue

The Haftara for Parashat Shemini, taken from the Book of Shemuel II (chapter 6), tells of the tragic events that took place during what was to have been the joyous occasion of the transportation of the Aron (ark) to King David’s city near Jerusalem. The ark had been captured by the Pelishtim many years earlier, and now it was finally being returned to the capital city. During the festive procession, the ark appeared as though it would fall, and so one of the two brothers charged with transporting the sacred article – Uza – quickly put his hand on the ark to support it. G-d immediately killed Uza for disrespecting the ark.

This story is read as the Haftara for Parashat Shemini, which tells the similar story of the death of two brothers – Aharon’s two oldest sons, Nadab and Abihu. They, like Uza, were killed on what had been a joyous, festive occasion – the inauguration of the Mishkan.

The Talmud explains that Uza was killed because he should have known that the ark did not need his support. After all, "Aron Noseh Et Nosav" – the ark actually transported those who carried it. When people appeared to carry the ark, in truth, the ark was carrying them. Thus, the ark certainly did not need anybody to keep it from falling. This mistake was regarded as a grievous sin, and thus Uza was killed.

The Malbim (Rav Meir Leibush Weiser, 1809-1879) adds that Uza forgot the special Kedusha of the Aron, and displayed a lack of reverence for Hashem. This was an especially severe infraction, the Malbim explains, because Uza "forgot the fear of the King when he was still standing in front of him." Uza was standing in G-d’s presence, and the failure to show awe and reverence to G-d while standing before Him constitutes a grave sin. The Malbim writes that such a sin is "Gadol Mi’neso" – "too great to bear."

It is frightening to note that we find this same expression used by Maran (Rav Yosef Karo, 1488-1575), in the Shulhan Aruch (Orah Haim 124:7), in reference to the sin of conversing during the Hazara – the Hazan’s repetition of the Amida prayer. After establishing that one may not engage in mundane conversation during the Hazara, Maran adds, "If one did converse, he is a sinner, and his iniquity is too great to bear." Not coincidentally, the Malbim describes the severity of Uza’s sin with this same terminology. Speaking during the prayer service is precisely the same offense, forgetting "the fear of the King" while "still standing in front of him." As we stand before G-d during prayer, we must maintain an aura of respect and reverence. Engaging in conversation as we stand before Hashem is very disrespectful, and, in a sense, resembles Uza’s sin, failing to conduct oneself with awe and respect in G-d’s presence.

Let us learn from this tragic episode the importance of maintaining decorum in the synagogue, that we must stand before G-d with respect, and show reverence for the sanctity of the Bet Kenesset.

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