Comments on Torah Portion Shemini 2023
Please resist the temptation to moralize about the main narrative in our Torah portion, Shemini.
Two young men meet a sudden, tragic and horrific death in our Torah portion. They are burnt alive in their father’s presence. The event does not ask for a moral of the story. It asks for silence - shocked, stunned silence.
The scene is described tersely:
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 Adonai alien fire, which God had not commanded them.
And fire came forth from Adonai and consumed them; thus they died in the presence of Adonai.
Commentators for ages have asked, “Why did Nadav and Avihu concoct a ‘strange fire?’” and, “Was this enough of a reason for their being immolated by God?”
Most modern commentators draw a lesson in leadership. Nadav and Avihu, as sons of the High Priest, had an obligation to fulfill their tasks precisely as they were taught. They ought not be role models of “leaders can do anything they want,” but rather “leaders follow the rules.”
Most of you readers know that I avoid moralizing at a first pass when it comes to our holy texts, contrary to the modern focus on ethics as an interpretive tool. I start with reminding myself that this text from Leviticus 10 is literature, not journalism. The text is not an eyewitness report of what happened, but a literary creation by an author in a specific place and time, with a specific audience, with a specific concern. Literary authors are trying to tell us something about the world and ourselves.
I also remind myself to read the Bible as philosophic anthropology and not as theology. The Bible, in my mind, is far less concerned about what God does and is far more concerned with what humans do, especially as they provoke the God-character of the Bible. The biblical authors, I remind myself, often evince an uncanny psychological brilliance, asking us to seek the motivations for what people do in terse narratives such as this one. The Bible is also mythological and archetypal, discussing not what happened then, but what happens all the time. The Bible presents patterns of existence.
The Bible does not tell us the motivations of Nadav and Avihu in bringing their strange fire. For a moment, I want to avoid that question and the inevitable moralizing answers. Let’s leave it at this: minimally, they made a mistake. They got the ingredients or the measurements of sacred fire wrong.
Maximally, the young men played with the ingredients on purpose, but did not live long enough to tell us why they did so.
The text indicates to us that they did something wrong. But the text refuses to tell us why it was wrong, so wrong that the depiction of God in this chapter sets them aflame.
If their act was intentional, I will assume they did not predict what would happen next – that a fire would come from God and burn them alive. As far as I know, the laws of God up to this point had not covered alien fire to this degree. Maybe this was a special case, like the penalty for veering across the double yellow lines before the vehicle code was fully written out. And even so, what is the penalty for veering over the double yellow? How much does the ticket cost? And what if, instead of correcting your course, you hit oncoming traffic. You break a traffic law that would usually just get you a ticket, but this time you kill someone. Who can be ready for the moment when a traffic infraction becomes negligent homicide? I think we all have to be ready for that moment. In the wrong place and time, mismeasuring the incense might get you killed.
The slightest moment of inattention, an error that you might think of as insignificant, can have catastrophic consequences. We don’t know why these two young men did what they did, anywhere from inattention to being scofflaws. Whatever their mistake or intention was, they were set afire.
We readers are brought into the scene. What happens next?
Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what Adonai meant when He said: ‘Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.’” And Aaron was silent.
What does that even mean? Moses is telling Aaron that God showed us God’s holiness just now, in this moment? And gained glory before all the people?
If holiness here means “wholly Other” – then yes. An Other-ness far removed from the human condition of errors and sins. A holiness that is awesome but can also be awful.
“Gaining glory?” Does this mean we readers, through the narrative of Nadav and Avihu, have run, obliviously, into a core boundary of the glory of God? Are we being told that when we transgress certain things that God has not even told us about we could get killed?
Build a Molten Calf? Repentance is possible.
Bring unauthorized incense – okay now you hit the get-burnt-alive tripwire.
Whatever else this story is about, it is about jarring and painful mysteries. ***
What did these boys do and why did they do it? What was it about “strange fire” that brought this reaction from the God image depicted here? What did Moses mean by what he said? I don’t know and for a moment I don’t want to come up with an answer. I can’t think of any explanation or moral summation adequate for the story.
The only clear and understandable thing to me is “va-yidom Aharon” - “and Aaron was silent.” Two of his children were killed before his eyes. Aaron perhaps believed he was going to bestow an incredible legacy upon his children, two of whom now lie smoldering.
I’ll venture this: Aaron did not know why this happened, and what his brother just said over the bodies was worse than meaningless. If Moses has a low point in the Bible, this is it.
I believe this little piece of literature is here to upset us. As we have seen many times before, the God of the Bible is dangerous and unpredictable. I think we should avoid for a moment the temptation to explain or moralize. We should allow ourselves to be shocked and dismayed, and then, for a moment, not to figure out what these boys did wrong or why God reacted as God did, but rather to think empathetically about Aaron’s broken heart.
“Va-yidom” is a dark play on words. It means “and he was silent” and it can also mean “and he bled.” Bleeding silence.
A man just saw two of his sons suddenly die, right in front of his eyes. He does not want to hear us moralizing about what they did. Aaron is stuck - it is way too late to turn down the job of High Priest, even with this new information about what that job entails. He could not transfer out of this unit.
Moses orders Aaron to hold it together, not to mourn - the incense oil is still upon him. Aaron is still in his role. His persona right now is bigger than the bitter, bleeding heartbreak within. Every public person has been there – unspeakable suffering within that must stay silent – there is the role, and all the world is a stage.
Like any good literature, this narrative does not end with the clarity of one of Aesop’s fables. Whatever lessons there are to be learned about leadership are, in my mind, shadowed by the utter shock, Aaron’s unpermitted need to break down and cry, his aching realization of what things are like, what this job means, shadowed by Aaron’s guilt that his two sons maybe were not really fit for the job, but he got them the job anyway and it killed them.
I think that all the moralizing that goes on about Nadav and Avihu might be attempts not to face Aaron, not to allow him to finally cry, to break down in our arms. If we felt his bleeding silence, we might feel what bleeds in us.