Shabbat Evening Service
From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
In this week’s Torah reading (Shemini), we learn about Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu. As sons of the high priest, we assume that the boys would know their way around holy matters. But, Nadab and Abihu brought an “eish zarah,” an alien fire as an offering to God, and “fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord.” In commentaries, the rabbis explain that the boys were drunk when they entered the Tent of Meeting, and that they brought an offering that was not commanded them. To the rabbis, the punishment fit the crime.
After the boys were consumed by fire, Moses says to Aaron, “This is what was meant when God said, ‘Through those near to Me, I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.’” Then Torah records, “Aaron was silent.” Aaron’s silence has astonished readers ever since. Perhaps it’s the finality of God’s decree. Perhaps it’s the utter silence of Aaron whose grief over his sons is not recorded. Perhaps it’s the finality we’ve all felt at times in our life when “we didn’t see it coming” or “we should have known better.”
Tragedy strikes every day even when we don’t hear about it. It’s called tragedy, because it’s an unexplainable event that changes the course of one’s life. Who can fathom a child who is run over by a driver backing out of the driveway; a traveler who boards a plane with a depressed pilot on a suicide mission; or, school children who are caught in the crossfire of a mentally ill classmate? It’s part of life’s vicissitudes that catch us off-guard, but these, like all tragedies, come at the reasonable cost we pay for entering public spaces with others. To do otherwise would be to imprison ourselves at home for fear of ever taking a risk even to cross the street.
The tragedy we read about in the Torah portion raises the bar, because the task is holy work. Aaron’s sons, though drunk and out of order, were wiped out and Aaron stood silent. It’s unfathomable to us as it must have been to Aaron. His brother, Moses, not only reports the news but offers a rationale. He says, “Through those near to [God], I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.” Then Aaron was silent. In his silence there is acquiescence. The high place that Aaron holds with his sons on behalf of God, before the people, comes with an excruciatingly high set of standards. Drunkenness is only one reason for God’s wrath. Surely it has to be more. In addition to the Torah’s reason, the rabbis added that the sons assumed Moses’ authority when they interpreted God’s command for themselves. It was an affront to Moses before the people.
Biblical accounts arouse us with wonder and amazement. Whether it’s love or rage, they’re usually thrilling. So is this story in Torah. It should arouse our senses to the standards by which we choose to live our lives and the consequences of those choices. Real tragedy falls on the unaware and innocent among us. No child should die at the hands of an errant driver or a mentally ill gunman. But, real tragedy also falls on us and others when we mess up, irrevocably. Our system of civil justice provides many means to restore our standing in the community. But, our civil justice system can’t restore or repair completely the judgment that falls on us by other systems of justice, including religious ones. There are means of forgiveness and atonement; we take them seriously. We are commanded to forgive and forget; but, the emotional burden borne by everyone takes more time than any act of contrition or moment of confession. The tragedy breaks down the bonds of relationships that depend on trust and faith, which flow from religious sources such as Leviticus.
Jewish sources outline in great detail how to seek forgiveness and how to pursue justice. Christian sources outline how to forgive and turn the other cheek. So great are the vicissitudes of our life, which by definition we can’t control, religion not only warns us against transgression, it provides us a means to overcome it. The goal is to stand in good stead with God for the sake of God’s gifts on us and our community. It begins with duty to others and to God.
Biblical stories set standards that are often out of reach. But, they serve as lessons to judge our actions by the standards that do exist in reality all around us. And, they serve to demonstrate that life is fragile. Decisions we make when we’re drunk or arrogant, let alone when we step outside the house in the morning, can have unintended consequences. We were taught to look both ways, to sit up straight and to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. They were rules for good conduct. They were meant to protect us in world that judged us.
Tragedy is always present. We would do well not to condemn the Biblical story for its severity, but rather to embrace the expectation that our choices always have consequences, and to the extent that we can control them, choose well.