Our connection to community helps us respond
A few years ago, on the first morning of Pesach, I was scanning the New York Times. There was a startling and sad news article about a young Jewish man in Brooklyn who, while participating in the ritual burning of hametz on the morning before the first Seder, had tried to accelerate the process by spraying lighter fluid on the remaining crumbs. The resulting flashback left him seriously burned.
I am reminded of this story when we come to Parashat Shemini, with its brief and troubling account of how Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, were destroyed by a burst of divine fire as they prepared to participate in the first sacrificial offerings in the newly-constructed Mishkan (portable sanctuary).
The story is perplexing and elusive. What exactly is the “esh zara,” alien fire, that Nadav and Avihu bring? What exactly did Nadav and Avihu do that was wrong? What could have been so wrong as to warrant execution by “a fire that came out from before the Lord and consumed them”? (Lev. 10:1)
Something feels wrong here, and classical as well as contemporary Jewish commentators struggle to understand the severity of this story. Many commentators try to explain the punishment by finding fault with some action or inaction of Nadav and Avihu: They were arrogant; they were inebriated; they were careless where they should have been careful.
A minority of commentators attribute a pious proclivity to Nadav and Avihu, seeing them as acting out of a desire to be close to and serve God. When they inadvertently cross a sacred boundary, they regrettably but circumstantially suffer the consequences, much as a benevolent bubbe might if she tinkered with a fuse box. If you know how to handle divine energy, you get “electrified;” if you don’t you risk getting “electrocuted.”
But any Bar or Bat Mitzvah student assigned this story would surely tell us that two junior-league priests on their first day on the job were entitled to a reprimand or a warning, not to death. As Professor Edward Greenstein sees this story, it is “a punishment in search of a crime.”
Why were generations of Jews before us able to accept earlier commentators’ explanations for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu? And why are modern Jews so often unsatisfied with those same answers?
Modernity made the Jewish theology of “if-then,” such as is found in the traditional prayer “mipnei chat’aeinu,” (because of our sins we are exiled), increasingly difficult to understand. In many ways, modern Judaism has moved away from the philosophical problem of trying to explain the “why” of tragedy, and has instead focused on the pastoral problem of “how” we respond when tragedy occurs. Put differently, we are increasingly comfortable being a “religion of questions” rather than a “religion of answers.”
Despite our imprecision about theology, we remain certain about the centrality of community. There are countless number of daily circumstances that challenge us—moments of illness and of loss, of tragedy and of suffering, of disruption, despair and distress. In those moments, more than ever, the resources of being connected to the Jewish community help us endure, and then help us respond, recover and rebuild.