parashat Shemini: Tragedy

In parashat Shemini, the Jewish world’s Torah reading for this week, the long process of building the first Jewish sanctuary – the mishkan – is completed, the priests – Aaron and his four sons – are ordained, the mishkan is dedicated, and the first sacrifices are finally being brought. The Israelites are thrilled to see the work of the entire community brought to a gratifyingly successful conclusion.
 
Then, inexplicably, in the middle of the celebration of the awesome Presence of G-d, two of Aaron’s sons are killed. 
 
Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense on it,
and offered strange fire before G-d, which had not been commanded.
And fire went out from G-d and devoured them, and they died there before G-d. (Lev.10.1-2)
 
They had just started out as consecrated kohanim, they had just started to serve – the purpose of their lives had just begun. The Israelites are horrified, and Aaron is silent, distraught. And we are left trying to make sense of it.
 
As usual in human situations, some of us look to blame Nadav and Avihu: they must have done something wrong, they must have deserved it. One commentary seeks meaning in the juxtaposition of a nearby prohibition against drinking wine while serving as a kohen, just a few verses later (Lev. 10.9). The two must have been drunk. Another interpreter argues that the text does not indicate that they “consulted with each other – as it is written, each with his own fire-pan – each acted on his own, individually.” (Vayikra Rabbah 20). Therefore, the transgression was in acting without coordination, perhaps, or without communication, or simply on personal initiative, without being commanded.
 
But there are other interpretations, such as in the ancient midrashic collection called Sifra: “In their joy, as soon as they saw the new fire, stood forth to heap love onto their love”. They came too close to the fiery Presence of G-d out of a desire to be that close. Jewish mysticism is full of a similar longing, and informed by a similar knowledge that to come too close is dangerous. That is why attempting a mystical experience, or even studying the mystical texts, is traditionally forbidden except to one who has a mature, deeply knowledgeable and thoughtful understanding of Jewish teachings and practice.
 
Yet, for some, there is a longing for that experience; it is so attractive, and can be so dangerous. Perhaps it is what some feel when hiking to the top of a remote and forbidding cliff; others love to sail the open ocean in a small boat, and feel most at one with the world there. 
 
The Sages of our tradition urged us to seek out that fire, if we must, carefully; to learn to be satisfied with a careful distance from it, and to protect ourselves with study, and with teachers, if we would come into proximity with it. I have more than once been asked by someone facing an unanswerable tragedy, “what shall I do now?” The best answer our tradition can offer is “more study – more Torah, more thoughtfulness, and more companionship in the struggle to face that which will remain an inexplicable mystery to us.
 
May we bring this lesson from Nadav and Avihu into our lives: keep your wits about you, don’t try this alone, and know that the highest and deepest love requires the greatest of care.
 
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