Maybe it’s my morbid streak, but the darker Torah stories are generally my favorites. After all, if the Torah portrayed a perfect world, I would just feel worse about my own messy life. Instead, reading these ancient stories makes me feel like things are OK. My life isn’t perfect, but no one’s is or ever has been. So I love that Torah stories aren’t all about angels and flowers.
But although I still appreciate stories of veiled seduction and secret weapons, I find that becoming a mother has (somewhat to my dismay) lessened my delight in stories of child sacrifice and gory deaths. And rather than appreciating the drama of this week’s portion, I found myself feeling sort of disturbed by the family tragedy.
Without warning, two of Aaron’s adult sons, Nadav and Avihu, are suddenly killed by God after offering a “strange fire” on the altar. It’s shocking. It seems to come out of nowhere. And God seems so…casual about the whole thing.
Most traditional commentators focus on wondering about that “strange fire,” the sacrifice Aaron’s sons were bringing at the time of their death. And it’s true that Aaron is not just any father–he’s the High Priest of the Israelites, brother of Moses, at the center of the Israelite people. So in a sense this story does happen to the whole community, and I understand why the Rabbis focus on lessons we might learn from the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, why God might have chosen to consume them in fire.
But instead, I couldn’t stop thinking about Aaron’s own private grief.
Right after the deaths, Moses turns to Aaron and says one of those things you say to someone who’s grieving, even though it doesn’t really help, and might actually hurt:
Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.”
And Aaron was silent.
Every time I read this, Aaron’s silence breaks my heart.
Some rabbis say this death was a punishment. Maybe Nadav and Avihu brought their sacrifice while they were drunk (since soon after their death, God tells Aaron that priests are forbidden to offer sacrifices while drinking, and will be punished with death if they do). Or maybe there was something rebellious or perverse about this “strange fire” which warranted making a major example of them.
Taking another approach entirely, some commentators interpret their deaths as a reward–Nadav and Avihu have become so holy that God gathers them up directly in an embrace of fire.
But reading this as a mother, I can’t help thinking, whatever the reason–Aaron is a father, and he’s given his sons into the service of God. And then he loses them.
Weirdly, the rest of the portion is all about rules of keeping kosher: which animals and bugs and fish and birds we are allowed to eat, and which we aren’t. To go from such an emotional episode to dietary restrictions is itself a little shocking.
But it also makes sense to me. What else can be spoken into that silence of Aaron’s? How else can we respond?
The truth is that however we understand the mysterious power that gives us life–whether it’s God, or nature, or something else entirely–that power can also take away our lives at any moment.
As Job says, after hearing his own children have suddenly died while eating and drinking wine: “I came naked out of my mothers’ womb, and I will return there naked. God gives, and God takes; blessed be God’s name.”
So reading Shemini as a mother, I take this portion as two halves of a whole.
One half is the magic and terror and grief of birth and death. They explode our sense of time and restructure our lives.
And the other half is what we call “normal life”: the small daily rules and rituals that help us structure our days. Eating and dressing and emailing and getting out the door and getting home and bath-time and bed, and starting all over again the next day.
And these two halves are not separate at all, except in our minds. We live our daily lives in the face of mystery: we are born, naked miracles, and at any moment we can return just as quickly to wherever we came from. And meanwhile there are meals to cook and dishes to wash and clothes to fold and walks to take and teeth to be brushed. It’s both impossibly complicated and utterly simple. It’s life.
To read the previous posts in our Torah MOMentary series, click here.