Nadav, Avihu, and COVID-19
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell
I trust everyone had a good Pesach and our Torah reading this week, Shemini, finds us exactly half-way through the Torah. It is AMAZING that the rabbis so loved the text that they counted every letter, determining that the letter vav in the word “gachon,” appearing this week, is the middle letter of the entire text. The Torah has a beginning, a middle, and an end. We find ourselves now in a moment of the unknown. It is so comforting to be able to place ourselves in time? Are we just in the beginning? In the middle? Approaching the end? It’s so disorienting not to know. If only we knew if we were halfway there, or a third of the way there, or where we are, it would be so comforting. The only thing we do know is that it WILL end at some point and we WILL return to a sense of normalcy, hopefully with a much deeper appreciation of the blessing of the normal.
Our parsha echoes the sadness and incredulity that we all feel. We share Aaron’s pain at the mystery of God’s ways and the loss of young lives. We feel it profoundly.
It should have been a moment of the greatest joy and celebration. After months of effort and the community working together, the mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the wilderness, was finally completed and ready to be dedicated. In what the rabbis describe as a miracle in and of itself, the entire people of Israel gathers to rejoice in the fruits of their collective labors. Somehow, miraculously, there is space for everyone, everyone is included- no need for social distancing.
Moses’ brother Aaron, and Aaron’s wife Elisheva, are the parents of 4 sons- Nadav and Avihu, Eliezer and Itamar; they are all destined for the priesthood. As the parsha begins, Aaron offers a sin offering on behalf of himself and his family. We learn an important lesson here- before we concern ourselves with the wrongdoing of others, let’s first look within. Likely there are opportunities for teshuvah in our own lives before we judge the actions of others. It is so easy to point a finger at others. Aaron’s example reminds us to be humble about our own imperfections.
Aaron then blessed the people, God’s glory was revealed, and the people’s offering was consumed.
And then- the unthinkable happens. Nadav and Avihu, clearly moved by the day’s ceremony, bring an offering of incense and lay it in a firepan. Their incense sacrifice was not commanded, not authorized, yet, they experience spontaneous joy and gratitude in that moment of profound holiness. In one of the most troubling incidents in the entire Torah, a fire descends from heaven. Instead of consuming the offering, it consumes the two young men, who are immediately killed.
The tradition offers many explanations, many excuses, as to why this is okay. So many, in fact, that it belies the fact that the rabbis are very NOT okay with what occurs. Well maybe it was for this reason? Well maybe it was because of something else? The harsh reality is that terrible things can happen, and there is no good reason at all.
Aaron has no response- he is silent. What can he say? In that single moment, his hopes and dreams for his family working together to create holiness, his hopes and dreams are destroyed. The intensity of his joy is undone in a crashing moment of sorrow and despair.
And in an act that only feels cruel, Moses tells the family that they are not to observe the traditional forms of mourning. And THEN, Moses further berates them for not having completed the day’s ritual observances.
Aaron finally speaks up and basically says, “Are you nuts? I am in no mood and how can I pretend that everything is normal on such a day as this?” And to his credit, Moses backs off and more or less responds, “You’re right.”
It may be that we all have a little Aaron inside us right now. We look around and see pain and suffering, the inexplicable death of young people whom we cannot even mourn according to custom, and we don’t know what to say or what to think. Good people struck down in the prime of life, and how can we go on as if everything is okay? The answer is we can’t. We don’t know what to say or what to think or how to move on, and that’s okay.
I think the message of Parshat Shemini is that, like Aaron, when we don’t know what to say, silence is an appropriate response to the inexplicable. “Vayidom Aharon- and Aaron was silent.” And so are we. . .