No Good Reason

This week’s Torah portion (parasha) contains one of only two narratives in the entire book of Leviticus — the rest of Leviticus is made up of laws, rules, and instructions. The story this week is of the death of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, and appears at the beginning of chapter 10 and is only 3 verses long. (But don’t worry — we also get rules, about food!, this week too. Read on…)

It is a poignant and tragic tale, partly due to its brevity, partly due to its strangeness. It leaves us with an overarching sense of injustice, and we are left with many questions but few answers. Why exactly did these men die? What does “alien fire” mean? Why would God want to kill young priests offering sacrificial incense?

You might imagine that these questions provide fertile ground for rabbinic inquiry, and you would be right. A number of midrashim (stories that come to fill in the blanks) were suggested by the rabbis of the Talmud about the deaths of Aaron’s sons. In chapter 9 of his book Reading The Book: Making The Bible A Timeless Text, Rabbi Burt Visotsky, a professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary, writes about sibling rivalry in the Bible. He explores the rivalry between Aaron and his more famous brother, Moses, and their sister, Miriam.

The literature is thoroughly divided on explaining how it came to pass that on the very day of Aaron’s investiture as High Priest, his two sons were put to death by fire from heaven. The puzzling death of the two siblings, Nadav and Avihu, is reported in the Bible on four separate occasions. Each time, the account differs until we are left with no clear idea of what actually happened…..

Professor Visotsky and his colleague, Dr. Avigdor Shinan of the Hebrew University, have laid out 12 separate reasons the traditional commentators gave for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. Visotsky compares this gamut of explanations to the various points of view in the Japanese film Rashomon, in which the filmmaker, Kurosawa, wants the viewer to understand that a story has no objective truth and that it changes depending on who is telling the story. The same events can be interpreted in vastly different ways. What happened to Aaron’s sons is beyond comprehension — hence the 12 very different reasons from the rabbis who tried to make sense of a tragic and ultimately perplexing loss.

And what do we know of Aaron’s reaction? “And Aaron was silent.” This loss of two sons was beyond words — Aaron was speechless. The brother who was the mouthpiece, the one who was to speak to the Pharaoh for Moses, is left without words in the face of his heartbreaking loss. Sometimes in the face of overwhelming tragedy, the best behavior is silence.

Then, on a completely different wave length, (or as our G-dcast storyteller says, “now that this unpleasantness is behind us”) the parasha also lays out some of the rules of kashrut, enumerating explicitly which animals Jews are allowed to eat and which are forbidden. The storyteller presents this information from chapter 11 of Leviticus in a catchy song:

Eating is one of the most basic functions of a living, breathing creature, humans included. If we are lucky, we eat 3 meals a day, both to sustain us and to give us pleasure. The Torah is concerned with what we consume as food/fuel. In parashat Sh’mini, this weeks portion, we get the full rule book on what is in the YES column and what is in the NO column.

Notice that no explicit reason is given in the Torah for why some of these animals, birds, and fish are forbidden for Jews to eat. Kind of like the idea that there is no explicit reason that two of Aaron’s sons are consumed by the fire of the sacrificial alter, even though the G-dcast storyteller suggests a few, like one of the better known rabbinic “reasons” — that Nadav and Avihu were drunk, and therefore in no state to perform the holy acts of offering up the incense.

It occurs to me that we are only several days past the last crumbs of matzah from 8 days of Passover, when there were many restrictions on what kinds of food Jews were allowed to consume and what was forbidden — anything made from the five grains that could become hametz (leavened). On an outing to the local grocery store’s kosher section, you could see food products, many produced in Israel, that bore the label, “kosher for Passover;” these are foods that come out only at this time of year.

It’s worth a few moments of contemplation on what all of these restrictions mean to people observing the kashrut laws, both those derived from this week’s parasha and those that apply to the 8 days of Passover. Also worth noting are all of the various kinds of restrictions people freely adopt concerning the kind of food they will eat and what they deem forbidden for either health or environmental reasons… from veganism to abstaining from gluten or sugar, from raw foodists to those who will not eat any foods that have been processed commercially. Once you start thinking about the various categories of food that people will or will not eat, the laws of kashrut in chapter 11 are no longer so strange!

Ritual Then, Ritual Now

As we sit down at our seder tables, I invite you to talk about what rituals you treasure in your life, and why they are important to you. Are they something you inherited or something you made up? How do you feel when you do those rituals?

The G-dcast storyteller tells us this week to “Keep That Fire Going!” Parashat Tzav is filled with how-to instructions on the burnt offerings which the Israelite priests are to offer to God in the holy Tabernacle, and later, the Beit HaMikdash (Temple) in Jerusalem. It is a precise manual of what the priests must wear, where they must bathe, how they must mix ingredients for offerings of meal (flour), who can and who must eat the offering, where, and how. It tells us the quantities of meal that should be used, which pots to cook the offerings in on the altar, which animals should be offered up and which parts may and may not be eaten, exactly where the priests should put their hands when slaughtering the animals, what to do with the blood, what the ceremonies of consecration must be like, how many days, where, and many more details.

Get the picture?

The minutiae remind me of Cooks Magazine, when someone is deconstructing a recipe you have made many times, like buttermilk biscuits, and then it gives you several pages of detailed instructions that are much more complicated than you thought the recipe warranted. Seems like way, way too much information, or TMI.

With Tzav, however, the detailed instructions seem different because we are dealing with the holy, the sanctified. All peoples have realms of sanctity in their lives, even if they don’t readily recognize them as such. And once you get into making something holy or set apart, you become involved in the performance of a ritual. Even the way we say that, “performing a ritual,” implies that we are doing something with a heightened awareness that is different from just doing something, like doing the laundry, doing dishes, or taking a shower. “Performing” implies we are acting in a way that is prescribed, with a script, a set of words and actions that are not spontaneous and not our own. Last week, we talked about ritual when we began the book of Leviticus, because that’s what this book is all about. Look at the lens through which Rabbi Nancy Kreimer considers our parasha and ritual in general. She mentions some of the same scholars we referenced last week, Arnold Eisen and Mary Douglas.

The most ritual-filled meal of the year will be celebrated on Monday night, the 14th of Nisan, this year corresponding to March 25. The Pesach (Passover) seder has 15 steps, corresponding to the 15 stairs leading up to the Holy of Holies in the Beit HaMikdash/Temple in Jerusalem. These are the very steps on which the Levites (for whom the book of Leviticus is central) would sing as they walked up to the Holy of Holies.

Turns out that as we sit around the seder table telling the story of our ancestors leaving the slavery of Mitzrayim (Egypt), we are also imitating the behavior of those priests of long ago and their complex rituals of sanctification. As Rabbi Kreimer points out in the article linked above, Catholics incorporate rituals into their Mass as congregants ingest the Eucharist, symbolic reminders of the body and blood of Jesus, who is also called the Lamb of God. Jews incorporate our particular symbols in the ritual foods we eat at the sedermatzah, maror, charoset, eggs, etc. — to remember, sacrilize, and sanctify the experience of liberation from bondage, of yitziyat mitzrayim (leaving Egypt), brought out by the strong arm and outstretched arm of the Holy One.

I wish you a very sweet and joyous Pesach and a seder filled with songs of thanksgiving, with free-wheeling discussions of what it means to be free, with questions galore (many of which cannot be answered simply), and with special connections to family and friends….and of course, a splendid Pesach meal! Happy Pesach!!

Let My People Go!

For you to consider as you read this week’s blog post:

  1. Can you remember a time when you rejoiced in the pain suffered by someone whom you thought of as your enemy? What was that like? Did you feel justified or diminished? What would it take to set your joy aside?
  2. Why do you suppose that God neither hears the cries of the Israelite slaves nor remembers the covenant made with the Israelite ancestors, until now? Why did Israel have to be enslaved for so long?
  3. If the Pharaoh kept changing his mind and “hardening his heart,” why did the God of Israel keep sending more plagues? What do you think was going on with Pharaoh?

Last week we focused on the birth of our nation; we were introduced to the greatest prophet of the Jewish people, Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our Teacher). This week’s parasha, Va-eira, propels us right into the heart of the story of the Israelite journey from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light, from oppression to redemption — all familiar phrases that echo in our heads and hearts — likely imprinted there at the Passover seder, the most celebrated Jewish ritual of the entire year.

But wait, doesn’t Passover come in the spring? And aren’t we now reading this parasha in the dead of winter? Yes and Yes. The Torah narrative doesn’t correspond to the seasons, and it does seem like this story is coming too early in the cycle of the seasons; on the other hand, we can think of it as a preview of the next major Jewish festival.

So much of what happens in Va-eira is familiar: the story of Moshe and his brother, Aharon/Aaron going to the Pharaoh to tell him “Let my people go!” If you are like me, when you hear this, you immediately set it to the music of the African American “spirituals,” or songs that the black slaves of the American South composed, soulful melodies of sadness and uplift.

The parasha opens with a little speech God gives to Moshe outlining God’s own identity; telling Moshe that God’s name is YHVH, a 4 letter name that is never vocalized but stands in for the defining statement, “I AM EXISTENCE, TOTALITY”; and reminding Moshe that this God of the Hebrews intends to keep the covenant (brit) that was made with Avraham/Abraham, Yitzhak/Isaac, and Ya’akov/Jacob so many generations before (Exodus 6:2-4.) God/YHVH then commands Moshe to go to the Pharaoh to deliver the message that the Israelites are a people under the protection of YHVH and that they must be liberated.

The rest of the parasha is a back and forth power play between Moshe and the Pharaoh, aided by what we have come to know as “the 10 plagues,” although in this parasha, we just get the first 7 — next week we’ll find out about the last three. God knows that the Pharaoh is stubborn and will need lots of persuasion to allow his cheap labor force to leave the land of Egypt, so God addresses this issue straight on… read about it in Exodus 7:14-18. God tells Moshe to accost the Pharaoh in the morning, when he comes out for his morning ablutions at the Nile River. This body of water is like the life force of Egypt — fresh, potable water in the desert. And now the God of the Hebrews is going to turn it to blood!!!

Following that first plague, we read about the frogs that will appear all over Egypt. This second plague has been turned into a very popular children’s song at many seder tables; at my seder table, I place some colorful little plastic frogs around the table, to give little kids something to play with and to remind us of this plague. We make the frogs kinda cutesy as you can see in the song:

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there is a much more sober and scary depiction of what it could have been like to experience the plague of frogs, seen in the movie, Magnolia. (Viewer advisory: yucky stuff.)

After an absolutely horrible week of frogs everywhere, Pharaoh says he has had enough and begs Moshe to ask the God of the Hebrews, YHVH, to return the frogs to the river. Of course, anyone who knows human psychology can now predict that the Pharaoh will change his mind. And of course, he does… (Exodus 8:11). And so on and on it goes, one plague after another, with horror and destruction raining down on the Egyptians until YHVH stops the plague and Pharaoh, in turn, reneges on his promise to let the Israelite slaves leave.

The storyteller in this week’s G-dcast video points out that when we recite the 10 plagues that the Egyptians suffered as part of the Passover seder, we diminish the amount of wine in our goblets by one drop for each plague, to symbolize our sympathy with the plight of our enemy. After all, wine is intended to gladden the heart, and we are removing some of that happy-making substance. This comes to teach us to have compassion, even for the suffering of our enemies — it’s the polar opposite of schadenfreude.

All of these natural human emotions — changing your mind when the worst of consequences lets up, not jumping up and down with glee when your enemy is getting pummeled, and hardening your heart against the human misery and pain — are part of this story.