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 bring an “eish zarah,” an alien fire, as an offering to God. Next, a “fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord.” Does the punishment fit the crime?
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 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? We can’t fathom any of it. Like all tragedies, they result from the price we pay for innocently entering public spaces. To do anything less, however, 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 as unfathomable to us as it must have been to Aaron. His brother, Moses, not only reports the news but offers a rationale, “Through those near to [God], I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.” In Aaron’s silence there is acquiescence. The high place that Aaron and his sons hold with God before the people comes with an equally high set of standards. Drunkenness is only one reason for God’s wrath. The rabbis add that the sons assumed Moses’ authority when they interpreted God’s command for themselves. It was an affront to Moses before the people.
Real tragedy falls on the unaware and innocent. No child should die at the hands of an errant driver or a mentally ill gunman, but tragedy also falls on us when we mess up, seemingly irrevocably. Our system of civil justice provides means to restore our standing in the community, but it can’t restore or repair completely the judgment that falls on us by other systems of justice, including religious ones. We are commanded to forgive and forget; but, the emotional burden borne by us takes more time than a single act of contrition or moment of confession. Tragedy breaks down relationships that depend on trust and faith.
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, that religion warns us against transgression and provides means to overcome it. The goal is to stand in good stead with God and our neighbors.
Biblical stories set standards that are often out of reach, but they serve as lessons to live by high ethical and moral standards. Decisions we make every day, let alone when we’re drunk or arrogant, can have unintended consequences. Tragedy is always potentially present. We would do well not to condemn the Biblical story for its severity, but rather to learn that our choices always have consequences, and to the extent that we can, we should make the best choices that we can.