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!!

Leviticus!

This week we began the third book of the Five Books of Moses, Leviticus. The English name comes from the Greek Levitikon, or things pertaining to the Levites, a tribe which includes the priests, who are the major actors in this book. The Hebrew name for this book is VaYikra (“And He (the Lord) called”), referring to the first words of the parasha: “And the Lord called to Moshe/Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting” (Leviticus 1:1). Another name for this centrally located book is Torat Ha-Kohanim or The Instruction Book for the Priests.

Leviticus has only two stories. The rest of the material, starting with this week’s parasha, are laws and instructions of all sorts about sacrifices, called korbanot (singular = korban) in Hebrew. The root of korban is the same root for the Hebrew word meaning to draw closer. Our storyteller makes a very important point about the whys and wherefores of sacrifices as being ways to become closer to the Divine.

Traditionally, the biblical book that small children first learned was the book of Leviticus, rather than the first book, Genesis, which is chock-full of great stories. Instead they started with Leviticus, filled with arcane and detailed descriptions of slaughtering and the sacrificing of animals as burnt offerings in the Tent of Meeting, on all different sorts of occasions, for all different sorts of reasons. Why? The tried and true explanation was that the laws of purity — that is, becoming pure after some type of misdeed for which one would present a burnt offering — were taught to the pure, that is, to little kids, who haven’t yet been around long enough to accumulate many sins. But more likely, it is probably because this book has laws that have practical application in Jewish daily life. For example, the dietary laws are found in Leviticus, the laws governing sexuality (who is OK to sleep with and who is forbidden) are also found in this book, and so are the laws describing what to do on each festival.

Another really important theme of this third book of the Torah is the idea that ritual laws (that are hard to justify) and ethical/social laws are all bound up with each other — neither is more or less important than the other. That is, the mitzvot (commandments) given for proper behavior between people and God are no more and no less elevated or precious than the mitzvot between one person and another or one group of people and another. This is where we get the fine print of what it means to be a Jew and what it means to be in relationship with God: the role of the Jew is to sanctify God’s name and God’s existence in the world. Leviticus describes how we do that with this system of korbanot/sacrifices.

Three more points:

1. We begin VaYikra just days before the great spring holiday of liberation, Pesach/Passover. One might think that the parasha to be read around Passover time would be the one describing the Exodus. But, no, we are here in Leviticus. What could the connection possibly be? For many Jews who observe the rituals of Pesach strictly, there are a bunch of laws governing how to rid our homes of chametz (any food product made from wheat, barley, rye, oats, spelt, or their derivatives, which has leavened (risen); flour from any of these five grains that comes in contact with water will leaven and is forbidden to eat or derive benefit from unless fully baked within eighteen minutes, which matzah is). In a certain way, the laws surrounding chametz are as mysterious as the laws of Leviticus. We say we are observing the chametz restrictions to remember the Exodus…. but the extent and severity of the laws governing Pesach observance have a lot in common with the detailed descriptions of the sacrifices in Leviticus.

2. The anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote a book in 1998 called Leviticus As Literature. It isn’t an easy read, but it is fascinating and has a unique perspective. Here’s how the book opens:

Leviticus is usually put into a kind of glass cabinet: it can be looked at, respected and wondered at, but the real heart of the religious is presumed to be found in other parts of the Bible, especially Genesis, Exodus, and Deuteronomy, and the writings of the psalms and prophets. The tradition does Leviticus wrong. This study’s aim is to reintegrate the book with the rest of the Bible. Read in the perspective of anthropology the food laws of Moses are not expressions of squeamishness about dirty animals and invasive insects. The purity rules for sex and leprosy are not examples of priestly prurience. The religion of Leviticus turns out to be not very different from that of the prophets, which demanded humble and contrite hearts, or from the psalmists’ love of the house of God. The main new feature of this interpretation is the attitude towards animal life. In this new perspective, Leviticus has to be read in line with Psalm 145:8-9: The God of Israel has compassion for all that he made…the more closely the text is studied, the more clearly Leviticus reveals itself as a modern religion, legislating for justice between persons and persons, between God and his people, and between people and animals.

You've read Leviticus, now play the video game!

3. If Mary Douglas is a little too thick, you might consider downloading a brand-new digital game called Leviticus! Here’s the review in Tablet magazine.

If your curiosity is now piqued, check out what Rabbi Charlie Schwartz has to say about the game and about the book of Leviticus.

Happy getting-ready-for-Pesach, coming on the evening of March 25!