Parshat Shemini opens with a description of the eighth day – the first day following the seven-day ordination ceremony of the priests. There is great significance to the eighth day. Seven days connotes Creation completed, the universe, as depicted in Genesis chapter 1, whole. The eighth day – the day following the completed Creation – suggests beginning anew on a higher plane. On the eighth day, Aaron and his sons assume their priestly duties: they offer sacrifices for the first time. (So, too, a Jewish boy assumes his place in the community through brit milah on the eighth day of his life.) It is a momentous occasion for both Aaron and his sons, and the People Israel.
First Aaron slaughters a calf as a sin offering, followed by a burnt offering, to make expiation for himself and for the people. Next Aaron offers a goat as a sin offering, as well as a burnt offering, on behalf of the people. More sacrifices follow. Finally, Aaron lifts his hands toward the people and blesses them. He and Moses adjourn to the Tent of Meeting and when they emerge, together they bless the people and va’yeira ch’vod Adonai el kol ha-am (“the Presence/Glory of God appeared to all the people”). Fire bursts forth and consumes the offerings, a sign that God is pleased.
It seems that things are off to a great start. Yet in the very next moment, tragedy strikes.
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 God had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord meant when God said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy and gain glory before all the people. And Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10: 1-3)In an instant, the perfect celebration, the ideal beginning, becomes a tragedy. Ordered creation returns to chaos. Joy is shattered by catastrophe. How often have we experienced this in our lives? “Just when things were going perfectly…” Where fire had burst forth to consume the sacrifices offered by Aaron and his sons (Lev. 9:24), confirming God’s acceptance, now fire bursts forth menacingly and lethally (Lev. 10:2).
On the surface, this story reflects the ancient belief that God strikes those who deviate from prescribed behavior. A similarly bewildering incident is recounted in Second Samuel, chapter 6. King David has decided to bring the Ark to Jerusalem. It is loaded onto an ox-cart. At one point while traveling along uneven terrain, the oxen stumble and the ark begins to teeter and slip off the ox-cart:
But when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out for the Ark of God and grasped it, for the oxen had stumbled. The Lord was incensed at Uzzah. And God struck him down on the spot for his indiscretion, and he died there beside the Ark of God. David was distressed because the Lord had inflicted a breach upon Uzzah; and that place was named Perez-uzzah, as it is still called. (II Samuel 6:6-8)Here, too, a human being oversteps sacred boundaries. As Nadab and Abihu lacked the authority to ordain sacrifices, so too Uzzah lacked the authority to touch the Ark. Just as God alone ordains sacrifices, so too God alone will protect the Ark.
Perhaps what distinguishes these two accounts is motivation, or perhaps not. Uzzah’s motivation is clearly to prevent the ark from toppling onto the ground. His motive strikes us as pure. We are unsure what inspires Nadab and Abihu to make an unauthorized incense offering. Many commentators have ascribed negative motives to Aaron’s sons (they were drunk, they disrespected their elders and eagerly anticipated their demise so they might assume control of the Tabernacle, they entered the Tabernacle inappropriately attired, they lacked faith in God). But we might also presume that, caught up in the religious fervor of the moment, their motivation is as pure as Uzzah’s: they seek to serve God.
Those who believe God intervenes in the quotidian of the universe often find these passages troubling. God appears excessively strict and vengeful, territorial and uncompromising.
Those whose conception of God does not conform to the micromanaging image portrayed in these accounts, who do not believe God looks down from heaven and abrogates the laws of physics and biology to intervene in our world on a continuous basis, who do not believe God is a cosmic being whose emotions often erupt into catastrophic events, find these passages difficult to interpret.
Perhaps one answer is found in the responses of Aaron and King David to inexplicable tragedy. Aaron remains silent. David is distressed. Neither can fully comprehend the meaning of what has just transpired. They can only feel pain coursing through them. And although both are inclined to attribute their tragedies to God – this is how they see the world and God in their time – they do not rail against God, shutting themselves off from God’s consolation and strength.
I cannot count how many people have said to me, “How could God…?” as they recounted a tragic event or terrible loss in their lives. Often, these same people are unwilling to attribute to God the blessings they have enjoyed. In their pain, they seek Someone to blame when things go grievously wrong. It is not the philosophical or theological inconsistency that worries me; it is that the prospect of cutting themselves off from God’s healing Presence, consolation, and strength to go on. Perhaps this is why the quintessential Jewish response to loss of life is to say Barukh dayan ha-emet (“Blessed is the judge of truth”) and Kaddish. God is inherent in the creativity, dynamism, and energy of the universe, but is not a coercive power that micromanages and coeres. Barukh dayan ha-emet then acknowledges that life, while precious, is not infinite, and Kaddish affirms God’s holiness.
Aaron and David model for us how to continue in relationship with God, whether you believe God caused your tragedy or not.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman