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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Shabbat Akharei Mot: A Little Light

Shabbat Akharei Mot begins in a poignant way, with a reminder of a tragic accident. We read about the death of Nadav and Abihu in parashat Shemini, only a few weeks ago, before Pesakh: young men, their first day on the job after much rigorous training, and something, all unforeseen, went terribly wrong. Akharei Mot, “after the death”, presents its contents in that context: the tragic death of the young, with much to live for, and much yet to do.

Accidents such as this tragedy might shake a modern Western American’s faith. Some say “what kind of G*d would allow such a thing?”. Others simply deny that there can be a G*d in a world where innocents suffer. 

It makes this parashah all the more compelling, because after the deaths of the two young men are noted, the text goes on to describe the next stage in the training of the surviving priests. When they died, their father, Aaron, withdrew from his public responsibility and took some private time to mourn. And then the life of the community went on, and Aaron went on with his service to his community as High Priest.

The father of the dead boys did not say “I quit because I have suffered unfairly.” Aaron did not say “I don’t believe in G*d because my sons died accidentally.” And he did not say “I proclaim myself against all organized religion because this is horrible and doesn’t make sense.” 

Those three responses to tragedy are understandable when they are made as a cry of pain, but they are not intelligible. In essence, all three are ways of cursing the darkness rather than struggling to light a candle.  

This is not to say that a better response would be “G*d knows best” or “there was a reason for this” or, G*d forbid, “G*d chose to take them because G*d loved them so much.” Those responses make G*d out to be an emotional terrorist.

There is a third possible response to unimaginable tragedy. Caught between the utter darkness of a father’s grief and his stance so close to G*d, in all its wholeness and joy, the Torah records that “Aaron was silent.” (Lev. 10.3)

There is undeserved suffering in this world. There is much evil as well that we do to each other. But there is also much undeserved joy, and much good that we do to each other. Neither makes sense. There is a mystery at the heart of life that we can approach but will never discern. And in the face of that mystery there is nothing we can say. All we can do is to assert that while we cannot control, or even understand, why bad things happen, we can try to control and understand our responses – and we can choose to reach out to each other, to do what we can when we see suffering and alleviate it. And when all is dark, we can choose not to give in to it, to deny any hope of light or meaning or truth. We can choose to nurture the little light that we can see, if we look carefully, among ourselves.

That is why we gather in organized community and call it religious. It is there that we search together for hope, not certainty. Hope is all the light we have.