Parashat Sh’mini for 2020
In this week’s Torah portion, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, brought an offering to God. Their offering was an “aish zarah,” a strange fire, which, the Torah says, God did not command them to bring. For reasons that are unclear in the Torah portion, “a fire went out from God and consumed them, and they died before God.” Why did God kill Nadav and Avihu? The rabbis scrambled for reasons.
Medieval scholar, Rashi, said that Nadav and Avihu were punished for their father Aaron’s sin of worshipping the Golden Calf at Mt. Sinai. Other rabbis’ views were documented in Midrash Rabbah. One posited that Nadav and Avihu were killed because they were drunk, referring to a later verse stating that you should not drink at the tabernacle. Others thought Nadav and Avihu were killed because they entered the sanctuary without washing their hands and feet, or that they were killed because they didn’t have children. The root of the word “zarah,” strange, is “zoor,” which can also mean profane. In the same Torah portion, we are commanded to separate the sacred from the profane, a teaching that appears in our Havdalah blessings, when we separate Shabbat from the rest of the week. Some argued that God killed Nadav and Avihu because they brought this strange, profane fire into the tabernacle, into the realm of the sacred. The truth is that none of these reasons justify their deaths.
After Nadav and Avihu died, the Torah says, “veyidom Aharon.” And Aaron was silent. The word sacrifice in Hebrew is korban, which means “to draw near.” Aaron watched his sons make an offering, drawing near to God. And then he watched, helpless, as God burned them to death. For their father, there were no words. There were no answers, or reasons. Aaron, who spoke for Moses when Moses could not find his voice, became voiceless himself. Veyidom Aharon. Aaron was silent.
There are prayers that are spoken and some that are silent, but our Amidah, our private prayer to God is distinctive. It is whispered because it is based on the prayers of Hannah, who was infertile. Hannah ached so desperately for a child that she couldn’t voice her pleas to God. In Tosefta Brachot, the rabbis said, “Hannah spoke in her heart,” meaning that her lips moved, but sound did not escape them. Another kind of silence in the face of suffering.
Over the last month, we have seen suffering – this illness, a different kind of strange fire shared by those who draw near to each other. Over 33,000 people have died from coronavirus in the United States alone. We don’t know when it will end. We don’t know if it will come back. We refresh our Twitter feeds, reading articles with conflicting information. Sometimes, like the rabbis, we scramble for reasons when death seems reasonless. Other times, we cry out or we protest, looking for something or someone to blame. Sometimes we whisper in prayer, like Hannah. Other times, like Aaron, all we can muster is silence.
Why did God kill Nadav and Avihu? Why have so many people died from coronavirus? Why are we still being punished for drawing near to each other? How many of us, in the last month, have ignored that nagging voice inside – the one that dares to ask God why this happened?
In Brachot 7a, the rabbis ask: “What does God pray?” Their answer? God prays, “May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger.” Even God is horrified when God’s wrath outweighs God’s mercy. Even God is devastated by corpses in refrigerator vans, hospitals overwhelmed, and by God’s own inability to heal all who need healing.
Our Yom Kippur Torah portion takes place immediately after Nadav and Avihu are killed. And sometimes, when we approach God on Yom Kippur, I follow the lead of theologian, David Blumenthal, and I imagine that God asks for our forgiveness too. For those moments when God’s mercy did not outweigh God’s wrath. For Nadav and Avihu. For asking Abraham to sacrifice his son. For asking us to sacrifice our healthcare professionals, grocery store employees, and others who are deemed “essential.” It’s a day for God to join us in grieving and atoning.
“For the wrong I have done before you
by allowing my wrath to consume me,” God prays.
“And for the wrong I have done before you
by allowing my fire to consume the innocent.
For the wrong I have done before you
by separating sacred and profane
And for the wrong I have done before you
because I should have known that everything is sacred.
Shema Yisrael, Listen, My children, My God-Strugglers,
Pardon Me, Forgive Me, Atone Me,” God weeps.
I am shema-ing, I am hearing You. And like Aaron, all I can muster for now is silence. But dear God, Moses was beside Aaron in Aaron’s silence, and we will be in this silence together. God, You heard Hannah’s whispered prayer, and we will hear each other across the distance. We learned to separate Shabbat from the rest of the week, and now we separate from one another, not because any one of us is profane, but because every soul is sacred. When we are safe again, we will join hands, as well as voices. We will stay in the struggle with You, God. And we will sing.