Shabbat Shemini: Not Why. How.

Our parashat hashavua this week brings us back to our regularly scheduled Torah text after two weeks devoted to special Pesakh Torah. We are back to the Book VaYikra, or Leviticus, and expect nothing more or less than the initiation of the mishkan (the sacred space the Israelites created in the wilderness) with the first sacrifices brought by the first priests. They have just spent seven days in preparation for their sacred work to begin, and on the eighth day they are to bring the first sacrifice to kick off the regular davening which will take place in this particular shul, if you will.
 
So it is; on the eighth – shemini – day they begin. 
 
Moshe said to Aaron: “Draw near the altar, and offer your sin-offering and your burnt-offering, and make atonement for yourself and for the people; present the offering of the people, and make atonement for them as HaShem commands.” (Lev. 9.7)
 
This all goes well enough, with the Torah recording the details carefully and specifically. In her book Leviticus As Literature the anthropologist Mary Douglas offers a fascinating interpretation of the animal sacrifices using ideas of symbolic anthropology (read an interesting explanation of that topic here: The Leviticus Monster and the Secret Decoder Ring).
 
But our story in the second year of the Triennial Cycle of Torah reading begins in a more problematic place: the moment when something goes wrong, and someone gets hurt.
 
Aaron, brother of Moshe, is the first High Priest. Older, mature and soberly approaching these new duties, he carefully carries out each technicality and succeeds in offering the first sacrifices, which are accepted. Then his sons, Nadav and Avihu, eagerly take their turn. Having watched their father, they already have ideas regarding how to improve on what Dad did.
 
And so the two men, younger, less mature and perhaps exhilarated with their new status and power, draw near to the altar in their turn:
 
Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer, and laid fire and incense on it, and offered this strange fire before HaShem, which  had not been commanded. And there came forth fire from before Hashem and consumed them, and they died before HaShem. (Lev. 10.1-2)
 
Rookie mistake, and a fatal one. 
 
Generations of Jews have tried to make sense of this. The question are all of two kinds, but they both are fundamentally asking why: (1) what kind of G*d punishes the new person on the job for the first mistake? and (2) what did Nadav and Avihu do that was so terribly wrong? Why did this happen? whose fault is it?
 
Yet it is also quite possible that this tragedy occurred for no reason other than that two young people were caught up in a danger they did not understand and could not foresee.
 
We always want to look for reasons, for people and circumstances to blame, for some logical understanding of tragedy and suffering. If we knew why, perhaps it would be less painful. But would it? If we knew where the cancer came from and how it started, would it be less scary? If we knew how the human being had become sociopathic enough to kill another human being, would it be less terrifying? 
 
Years ago a very popular book was published with a title that everyone misread. It was called When Bad Things Happen to Good People, but everyone referred to it as Why, not When. The truth is that there is no answer to the question why that will ever truly satisfy the grieving heart. We will never know why misfortune occurs, why accidents happen, why illnesses strike down our loved ones. In the Book of Job the author actually puts words to that effect in the mouth of G*d, who explains to Job that even if he knew why he suffered, it wouldn’t help, because he still wouldn’t understand.
 
We cannot know why life comes at us as it does. The only question we can usefully ask, and hope to answer, with the help of a lot of study, prayer and support from and of each other, is this: how will I respond?
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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.