Yom Rivii, 21 Tammuz 5779
Wednesday, 24 July 2019
Parashat Shemini 2015

Parashat Shemini
10th April 2015 - Rabbi Leah Jordan

“Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu 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. 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 He said: “Through those near Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.”’ And Aaron was silent.”

This is the heartwrenching scene at the heart of this week’s parsha: the death of Moses’ older brother Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, who are presumably meant to follow him into the priesthood. They offer ‘alien fire’ to God and are killed. It is an unexpectedly catastrophic moment, one whose violence and death calls out to us from the parsha. The Jewish tradition has ruminated on the meaning of it for literally millennia.

Why are they offering something God has not asked them to? What is the nature of their offering, this ‘alien fire’? Why does God strike them down? What is the nature of Moses’ explanation to his brother, Aaron, their father? “Through those near Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.” Are these words of comfort? Veiled rebuke? And what do we make of their father Aaron’s silence? Is he grief-stricken, condemnatory of his sons’ actions, or, as my teacher Rabbi Shimon Felix once argued, simply acknowledging that as a parent of two grown children, he cannot comment on the independent acts of his sons, who have acted of their own accord?

This season, the month of Nissan, of which Pesach is its heart, is a time for these reflections. In Jewish law, though Nissan is a month of joy, during which we’re not typically meant to fast, there’s leeway for fasting due to its being the·yahrzeit(anniversary of the passing) of·Nadav·and·Avihu, the sons of the high priest Aaron. So this is the anniversary month of their death, and it seems something in the tradition mourns them. Even if their actions were not commanded by God, righteous individuals fast at their yahrzeit.

Why?

Some say that what Nadav and Avihu did, whatever it was, was wrong and therefore justifiably answerable by death. However, I am always struck by the differing view – that what they did, while misguided, probably did not deserve death and that this is in fact an instance of the Torah wading into theodicy territory. That is, why do terrible things happen to those who don’t seem to deserve it? In a world ordered by an unseen, just providence, how does the calamitous and terrible find its way in? The bewildering bloodshed perpetrated by the Almighty in this moment is frightening and, perhaps, contrary to our instinct to explain it, unjustifiable. Aaron is silent because there is nothing to say in the face of some twists of fate. As that great contemporary Jewish prophet wrote while looking at the world as it is, sometimes one sees evidence of God’s just presence and sometimes not:· “Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me.”