Parshah Shemini by David Mark


After weeks of design and construction, craftsmen extraordinaires Betsalel and Oholiav
announce the completion of the mishkan/sacred dwelling-place, built from the seemingly endless
donations of the Israelites—neither before nor since has there ever been such a successful fundraising
drive in the history of institutionalized Judaism. Inauguration Day arrives, with a grand service of
dedication planned by Aaron the High Priest and his oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu. But the young men,
for reasons unclear, bungle the formula for the incense: “And the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, took
each of them his incense-pan and placed therein the incense, and brought strange fire near to God as an
incense-offering, which God had not commanded them.” Angered by this lack of attention to detail or
caring—we will never, truly, know what motivated the hapless tyro-kohanim— God strikes them both
dead, instantly. “And Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what God said: “By those who are close to Me with I
be sanctified, and before all the people will I be honored,”’ and Aaron was silent” (Lev. 10:1-2;
translation and italics mine).

That is all the Torah says about this tragic incident. Thereafter follows a tantalizing hint as to why
the young men may have bungled the incense-formula—God warns Aaron directly (as opposed to giving
prophecy through Moses) not to consume liquor or strong drink before entering the precincts of the
mishkan. Commentators have speculated that, perhaps, Nadav and Avihu were nervous about their first
public service, and so sipped a little alcohol to calm their nerves. God was offended that His servitors
were tipsy, and so slew them.

Regardless of what may have occurred, we wonder why the two novice priests paid for it with
their lives. The Torah tells us nothing of Aaron’s grief; he is undoubtedly in shock at his sudden loss (we
have no idea of how his wife feels; the Torah does not even record her name, much less her emotions),
but the service must go on. The omission of God’s motives is glaring, but this is the nature of the Torah:
it gives us only the details its authors (God or someone else) considered important. God is angered that
His instructions were not followed to the letter; two young men lie dead as the consequence of that anger,
and the story continues.

I suggest that, rather than a straightforward tale of mistakes and a resultant death, the Torah is
veritably true-to-life in this episode. Tragedy is an essential part of our human condition; were it not for
illness, for example, we might never appreciate the blessings of recovery and health. We learn here that
even Aaron, the High Priest in all his glory, and a prophet second only to his baby brother Moses,
underwent disappointment and suffering in his life. With the dawn of that fateful day, Aaron might well
have been dreaming about the future of his priesthood, feeling deservedly proud that his boys would be
following him into the “family business.” His bosom swelled as he marked their approach before the
Nameless One, the Universal Power Who led the Israelites through the hazardous wilderness, Who would
protect and defend them against all enemies, Who would cause Aaron’s priestly line to flourish—but
then, a crack of thunder, a bolt of lightning, and his sons instantly lay there, dead on the spot. Did his faith
in God waver? The Torah does not answer: we know only that he went on with the service, probably
traumatized, certainly in mute acceptance of his terrible loss.

Perhaps this reveals the secret of us Jews, a people whose long history has been fraught with
tragedy. “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him” (Job 13:15). We may argue with God; we may ask
why we have been victimized so often and for so long; but, in the end, we must pick up our traps and
move on, following the wearisome van of history. If evil strikes for no reason, we can question, but it
would be far more human and humane (I mean to say menschlich) of us to reach out to those afflicted,
and help to bind up their wounds. What good will come of shaking our fists at the heavens? There may
appear to be no justice in a faceless cosmos, but we alone can assure that there be justice on earth—for
the powerless, the hungry, the afflicted. Don’t wait for God to work miracles for you, for God has sent
you the challenge, and you, alone or with others, must seek the solution. To be a Jew is to accept the
burdens of the human condition, and to cling to our mysterious God, wherever life and fate may take us.

David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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