on Thursday, 20 April 2017. Posted in Torah Talks
This week’s Torah portion is the third in the Book of Leviticus, Shemini, and it includes a very dramatic, and traumatic event. The Tabernacle in the Wilderness has just been consecrated, and the priests, Moses’ brother Aaron and his sons, are entering into their office. God’s presence fills the Tabernacle, and all is right with the people.
And then, suddenly, disaster strikes. Aaron’s eldest sons, newly ordained priests named Nadav and Avihu, offer what is called eish zarah, strange fire to the Lord. They are immediately struck down and devoured by divine fire, dying before the Lord.
In the aftermath of this tragic shock, Moses consoles Aaron with strange words: “God says, ‘By those brought near to Me I am consecrated, and honored before the people.’”
There is no word on whether Aaron accepted this as a just ending for his sons. The text merely says “Vayidom Aharon”, Aaron was silent.
We do not know the young priests’ offense, if there was any. We are not told what that “strange fire” was. God decrees, atonement offerings are made for whatever sin the young men may have committed, and the people are restored to God’s favor. There is no further explanation in the Torah, although the rabbis create a variety of possible explanations for the disaster: perhaps the young men were drinking, or they offered sacrifices that weren’t ordered by God, or they were actually engaged in some form of idolatry, or they were too arrogant and usurped their father’s place…
But the truth is that we don’t know why they died. Of course, that’s not just true in the Torah.
We also do not know why certain tragedies take place in our own lives, or why terrible things sometimes happen to good people. As Ben Sirach says in the text Ecclesiasticus (from the Apocrypha of the Hebrew Bible), “We have been shown more than we can understand.” God simply keeps the rationale private. We just don’t know, and likely won’t know.
So what do we know?
We do know that Aaron’s silence may be the only real response to profound tragedy and loss. Our own comfort and consolation may come only when we silently acknowledge our own powerlessness.
This seems small comfort, indeed—but it is also an honest appraisal of our ability to comprehend profound loss.
May God keep us from tragedy—but may God also give us the strength of Aaron when we have to face it, the ability to accept the painful inadequacy of our own explanations with dignity and courage.
Join me for the final session of my “Holiest Places on Earth” class tonight—we will explore Easter Island together. Thursday night at 6:30 PM we host a public forum on the future of Health Care in our society with a series of experts, moderated by City Councilman Steve Kozachik. And this Sunday join us for the community Yom HaShoah commemoration at 2 PM in our Rubin Family Sanctuary—and enjoy challah at our first post-Passover Shabbat service this Friday night at 7:30 PM, and at Downtown Shabbat al fresco at the Jewish History Museum at 9:30 PM!