Questioning faith in the parsha
Monthly Archives: March 2011
Among all the questions raised by the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, one point seems clear – that they are intended to have exemplary value.
For we are told that these deaths redound to the glory of, or somehow honour, God.
First, we might say that every death, like every birth, partakes of something greater, and that this “something greater” is all the more evident when, as here, the decisive moment occurs in the sanctuary.
Then again, perhaps the exemplary value of these two deaths is to be understood not in terms of whatever reasons one might find for them – for instance, that the two brothers were drunk or arrogant or failed to consult with one another or in any other way were violating cultic procedure: the mere fact that the rabbis can’t agree on the nature of their “offence”, or indeed whether their deaths are a punishment or a reward, should caution us against seeking a clear-cut answer.
In any case, we can only ever know the causes of death, immediate or long-term, but not the ultimate reasons, not the place of each life and death in any larger scheme, if there is any such larger scheme. It is surely more profitable to consider just the manner of the brothers’ death and Aaron’s response to it.
Leviticus 10: 1 and 2 distinguishes two types of fire: the “alien”, “strange”, or even “unconsecrated” fire that the brothers bring to the altar, and the fire that “came forth from (or from before) the Lord and consumed them”. Consumed them, but not their clothes, for as we are told later, “[Mishael and Elzaphan] came forward and carried them out of the camp by their tunics…” (10: 5).
This is the fire of divine presence, it is not alien or strange, it is not a physical fire that obeys the laws of chemistry; it is a non-physical fire, a fire of transformation, both of life into death and of creation from the void. This fire that brings death is also the fire that brings life. Life and death are the two faces of existence, just as day and night are the two faces of the earth’s diurnal round.
The message is not that God intervenes in human affairs, whether justly or abusively. But simply that even those who have been chosen as priests, even those who are called to preside before God’s presence, are also men and are also subject to death, even as officiants or intermediaries between the divine presence and the community.
And so Aaron, the high priest, who again is similarly a man, and moreover a man of words, is silent before the death of his sons. As a high priest, he is enjoined by Moses not to succumb to grief. The ordinary people are allowed to “bewail the burning that the Lord has wrought”, but acceptance if required from Aaron and his remaining sons, as priests, as examples to the people. Yet Aaron, in declining to eat (of the sin offering) shows that he nevertheless mourns, and Moses concurs that it is right that he should do so.
The earlier silence of Aaron becomes all the more poignant. His grief is that of the righteous man who stands in the presence of God and accepts that before the sorrow of loss, there is neither remedy nor easy explanation. He must continue to face the fire and aspire to the light.
This Shabbat as we delve into the story of Aaron’s two sons, Naadav and Avihu, we will ponder how we understand death in relation to God’s will.
It’s portion Sh’mini and the author is Shalom Auslander.
Shemini – March 26. A story by Shalom Auslander
Bloom’s Volvo finally came to rest upside down on the right-hand shoulder of the New York State Thruway. The roof was collapsed, the front end was crushed, and the driver’s side door was torn nearly in half.
The policeman shook his head.
“You’re very lucky.”
“Somebody up there likes you.”
Whatever dying mechanism was coughing black smoke from the underside of the car soon ignited. The car filled with flames, incinerating Bloom’s insurance papers, his registration, the picture of his deceased grandparents that hung from his rearview mirror and his Coach Executive briefcase, which contained the 300-page report on emerging Asian markets he’d promised to have in by Monday morning and the only copy of a screenplay he’d been secretly working on. It was a romantic comedy.
Please come to chevra for the rest of the story.
1 Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them.
2 And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord. 3 Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord meant when He said:
Through those near to Me I show Myself holy,
And gain glory before all the people.”
And Aaron was silent.
4 Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said to them, “Come forward and carry your kinsmen away from the front of the sanctuary to a place outside the camp.”
5 They came forward and carried them out of the camp by their tunics, as Moses had ordered.
6 And Moses said to Aaron and to his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, “Do not bare your heads and do not rend your clothes, lest you die and anger strike the whole community. But your kinsmen, all the house of Israel, shall bewail the burning that the Lord has wrought.
7 And so do not go outside the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, lest you die, for the Lord’s anointing oil is upon you.” And they did as Moses had bidden.
Even young children know that “the light must not go out” — the eternal light that is our symbol fire that must not go out on the altar.
We study that commandment in this week’s parsha, Tzav, with a Koshi posed by Abravanel: WHY are we told again and again[V2,5,6] that “the fire must not go out.” WHAT must we do to keep the light perpetually aflame? WHAT is the Source of that flame?
Our author is the famous yiddishist Chaim Grade (thank you, Reva, for a great bio!) . The story is “My Quarrel with Hersh Raseyner.”
In 1937 I returned to Biaslystok, seven years after I had been a student in the Novaredok Yeshiva of the Mussarists, a movement that gives special importance to ethical and ascetic elements in Judaism. When I came back I found many of my old schoolmates still there. A few even came to my lecture one evening. Others visited me secretly; they did not want the head of the yeshiva to find out. I could see that their poverty had brought them suffering and that the fire of their youthful zeal had slowly burned itself out. They continued to observe all the laws and usages meticulously, but the weariness of spiritual wrestlings lay upon them. For years they had tried to tear the desire for pleasure out of their hearts, and now they realized they had lost the war with themselves. They had not overcome the evil urge.
For the rest of the story, come to Chevra!
It would indeed be troubling if the message here were that it is necessary to incur or bear guilt in order to be “good”.
That is not the rationale for recognition and expiation of guilt.
From an ontological perspective and looking beyond the legislative or regulatory aspect of Leviticus, I see a concern that recurs again and again in the Torah: everything, whether the wind in the trees, joy in procreation, victory over one’s foes, or even any form of wrongdoing – regarded essentially as that which is harmful to the community – everything must serve to bring us closer to the divine presence.
We are carriers of guilt just as we are carriers of ladders.
Guilt here becomes another vehicle, yet another way of drawing near to God or, perhaps the same thing in other words, forming part of the higher, collective self of the community.
It’s interesting to compare the Jewish sense of guilt with the Catholic sense of sin. For Catholics, all people are considered to be in a state of sin since the Fall but can individually be redeemed through JC. All Jews carry the burden of an imperfect world and strive together to heal it. Everything is grist to that mill.
I am put in mind of the impossible transcendence at the heart of Kafka’s writings and the last words of The Trial, when Joseph K. is stabbed to death like a dog: “It was”, we are told, “as if the shame of it must outlive him”.
The shame – “die Scham” – the inward shame, the mirror of guilt for a nameless crime, a crime that cannot be named, that shame must continue outside the confines of his own life, so long as it cannot be expiated.
In parsha Vayikra, the need for atonement is then as important a part of the message as the need to observe rules. Both are means of binding the community together. He who does not realize his guilt as defined is cut of from the community as defined…
It surely follows that if we do not recognize or for some reason reject the rules set out in Leviticus, the community has to be redefined. The question is how? By the sharing of questions?
We enter the book of Leviticus this week with a question the lawyers among us will probably find particularly enjoyable: When a witness to wrongdoing withholds information, who bears the guilt? And how?
It’s parashah Vayikra. Remez is posted if you wish to read ahead.