Shemini by David Hartley Mark

I am Tsilya, daughter of Yitzhar, wife of Aaron, the High Priest, mother of my Lost Boys, Nadav and Avihu. You will not read my name in the Great Scroll of the Teaching; no; my name has been lost in darkness, for I spent my days mourning for my boys, my sons, Nadav and Avihu, who died blamelessly, for their mistake before the Most High.

That day, the Great Day of Coronation and Dedication of the Altar through Sacrifice, had begun so favorably, so full of promise for the future—I was exhausted, as usual, but running all about, as I had to, caring for our children; we had many—not just the four boys, but our three daughters; you will not read of them. Girls do not count; why should they? They cannot learn the Laws of the Hidden One, He Who Dwells in Smoke and Thunder. We women-folk are more quietly learned; we know the ways of the Earth, the Old Goddess of Grains, and Fruits, and the Cycles of Seasons. We are the ones who cook, and bake, and sew; we bring Life to Being. We are kept from the Learning of the Scrolls, but we have our own ways of Learning.

As I said… it began in triumph. My boys, my boys—they were anxious, willing to serve G-d; they were nervous. Their father Aaron had instructed them; Moses, their uncle, had instructed them; so many details! So many ingredients! This, to the Holy Incense; That, to the Holy Oil; this way, how to examine the carcass of a Beast to judge it fit for a sacrifice….

They were overwhelmed. I had laid out all of their garments, so carefully, so lovingly, the night before; I, their mother; who should know better than I, who had raised them? But, so quick-and-hurried are the Ways of Men, and of Priests, and of Levites, that they yanked at their robes, and pulled at their holy shirts (which might have torn, had I not thought beforehand, and used the extra-strong Thread)—

And were out the door, before I could organize my three, beautiful Daughters, and bring them along, too—

In hopes that, perhaps they, too, might gain a fraction, just a small, tiny portion of the Glory thereunto Pertaining to their Famous Brothers—I hurried them along, but they were hard to hurry—I heard the silver horns sounding a sennet, and the more earthy tones of the shofarote, the rams’ horns, summoning the People, in the distance, and the assembled multitudes of the Israelite Tribes cheering—but, as I (finally) snatched up my youngest, my sweet Arela, who was laughing, and turning her head away from her Mother’s kisses, I rushed for the door of the tent—

But there, there he stood: my Husband. Where was his Splendor? His Golden Headband, with its Golden Words, “Holiness to the Lord”? Instead, he stood there, his royal, priestly robes bedraggled, torn, and trembling. He did not—look at me. I gave Arella to her sister and approached him, slowly; he looked—strange.

“How is it with you, My Husband, My Lord?” I asked him.

He stood, stock-still. I took him by his priestly shoulders and shook him:

“Aaron! It is I, Tsilya, your Wife and Helpmeet-Partner, who speaks to you!”

He blinked, and looked down at me—and rasped; a throaty noise came from his lips, as if he had been drained of all juice in his body; as if he had become a piece of wood himself, like those piney chips he burns atop the Altar-Flame. He wiped a sooty hand across his lips, opened his mouth, and—

“Dead,” he croaked.

“Dead cows? Dead goats?” I asked.
“No. Dead—“ he rasped.

I realized. Slowly. But did not wish to.

“Aaron,” I said, and the words stuck in my throat, “Aaron. Where are my boys? Where are Nadav and Avihu? And Elazar and Itamar, my younger sons?”

“Nadav and Avihu,” he muttered, more to himself than to me, “are struck down—by the Hand of the Invisible One. They—“

Each word of his echoed in my ears, and tore a hole into my Mother’s heart. Nadav? Avihu? Dead? But I just saw them leave; they were going—were going—

“How? Why?” I said.

“They made a mistake,” he said, “Strange fire. I cannot tell.”

“I saw it happen,” came a voice, a strong, deep one. I looked, and saw Moses—my brother-in-law, the Spokesman for our G-d—his G-d, at least. No more mine.

“It was harsh, but justified,” he said to me—Moses, that is—“Your boys were wrong. They did not follow my—that is, G-d’s—instructions. All must be done, correctly, or G-d knows what might happen.”

“G-d knows,” I said, and felt the strength leave my legs, so that I slumped to the floor of the tent, there in the dust before my husband my lord and his brother the Spokesman, “G-d may know, but I—but I….” I lay there, and wept. The men left, as men do.

…And that is why I left the Camp, and stay in this tent, this Black Goatskin Tent, outside the Camp Boundaries. I mourn; I pile dust upon my head; no one comes to visit me, but—Bless Her! Miriam. She is my solace. My brother Korach has also been by.

“There is no Justice, and no Judge,” he whispers, through the closed tent door, and, “You will be avenged, my Shadow, my Sister, my Tsilya.”

Miriam does not agree. She weeps without; I weep within. We mourn my Boys together.

I still do not know exactly what they did wrong.

They were so young. Why must the Young die on the Instructions of the Old?

O G-d! Help me to return to my People; help me to believe, again….

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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