Connecting Shemini and HaGevurah
This week we read the tragic story of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu. As the community is gathered together to celebrate the first sacrifice in the tabernacle, these two young priests come forward and offer an “alien fire” before God. As a result of their actions, they are consumed by fire and die upon the altar. It is not clear what their “sin” was, for what reason they met their end and the answer to this question has been grist for the rabbinic mill. Many suggest that the two men were morally corrupt, that they were drunkards who did not treat their high office with respect. Further, it is argued that they took advantage of their position, using their priesthood to acquire favors, to laud themselves over others. Others suggest that their ambition was so great that they were counting down the days until their father and uncle would move on and they could appropriate the leadership of the people and with it, consummate power. But there is nothing in the text to suggest any such moral deficiencies, all we know is that they brought a strange offering which was not commanded by God and as a result their lives were ended at the hand of God.
So why this desire by the commentators to brand the brothers immoral and unscrupulous? Because it places some order on an otherwise random chaotic series of events. If Nadav and Avihu were such terrible people then perhaps they deserved
their deaths, or maybe, at the very least, their deaths become more understandable. And if that is the case, then it removes a small uncertainty from life. We have a path; don’t sin, don’t behave immorally and God will not take your life. But that is not the way of the world. That is not what happens in life. All around us innocent, good people die horrible, tragic unexplained deaths. People are taken from their families, from this life, too soon, in cruel and painful ways and there is no explanation, no reason.
In response to his sons’ deaths the parashah tells us that Aaron is silent. He has no words, he has no way to contain in language the pain of his loss, his anger, his hurt, his suffering. Moses comes to him with an explanation, an attempt to comfort, he says, “This is what God meant when God said through those near to me I show myself holy.”(Lev. 10:3)
But Aaron says nothing, what is there to say in the face of such a loss? He cannot be comforted with Moses’ words. But Moses says; “we shall all mourn for them, the whole community of Israel.” (Lev 10:6) This does not remove Aaron’s pain, his grief, but together the community can be a balm, a way to remember, to hold them and Aaron in their arms.
This Shabbat is Shabbat Hagevurah, the Shabbat before Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. The time we remember the millions who were murdered at the hands of the Nazis. There is no explanation, there are no words which can contain the grief, the suffering, the pain, the loss. We feel that we should perhaps be silent like Aaron, for how can a language adequately express what happened, how can we even begin to try to understand?
The numbers are overwhelming, the pain, the tragedy too great. Yet we must be like Moses and the community, we must find a way to speak into the silence, to cry, to express our anger, our pain, our grief and hurt. To tell the stories and to remember. We must mourn together as a community, not to attempt explanations but instead to stand beside all the Aarons, to hold them, to cry with them and remember. It is our responsibility to stand together with the survivors, with our community this and every Yom Hashoah. May each of the murdered souls be at peace.