Torah Talk on Shemini 5779
This week’s Torah portion, Shemini, the third in the Book of Leviticus, includes a very dramatic and traumatic event. The Tabernacle in the Wilderness has just been consecrated, and the priests, Moses’ brother Aaron and his sons, are beginning their service there. God’s presence fills the Tabernacle, and all is right with the people and, apparently, the world.
Then, suddenly, disaster strikes. Aaron’s eldest sons, newly ordained priests named Nadav and Avihu, offer eish zarah, strange fire to the Lord. They are immediately struck down and devoured by divine flame, dying before the Lord.
In the aftermath of this tragic shock, Moses consoles Aaron with peculiar words: “God says, ‘By those brought near to Me I am consecrated and honored before the people.’” There is no mention of whether Aaron accepted this as a just ending for his sons. The text merely says “Vayidom Aharon”, Aaron was silent.
We do not know the young priests’ offense, if there was any. We are not told what that “strange fire” was. God decrees, atonement offerings are made for whatever sin the young men may have committed, and the people are restored to God’s favor. There is no further explanation in the Torah, although the rabbis later create a variety of possible explanations for the disaster: perhaps the young men were drunk, or they offered sacrifices that weren’t ordered by God, or they were actually engaged in some form of idolatry, or they were too arrogant and usurped their father’s place.
But the truth is that we don’t know why they died.
Of course, that’s not just true in the Torah. We also do not know why most tragedies take place in our own lives, or why terrible things sometimes happen to good people. As Ben Sirach says in the text Ecclesiasticus (from the Apocrypha of the Hebrew Bible), “We have been shown more than we can understand.” God keeps the rationale private. We just don’t know, and likely won’t know.
So what do we know?
We do know that Aaron’s silence may be the only real response to profound tragedy and loss. Our own comfort and consolation may come only when we silently acknowledge our own powerlessness.
This seems small comfort, indeed—but it is also an honest appraisal of our ability to comprehend profound loss.
May God keep us from tragedy—but may God also give us the strength of Aaron when we have to face it, the ability to accept the painful inadequacy of our own explanations with dignity and courage.