Shmini – When Tragedy Strikes – Sermon by: Rabbi Ezray

Life can change in a moment.

Life can change in a moment.

We know that all too well after this past year and our ancestors, the Children of Israel, also learned this painful lesson.

Things were beginning to look good for the Israelites.  After the fiasco of the Golden Calf, we readjusted and adapted.  Rather than using gold for idolatry, wealth was instead devoted to creating a home for God, where offerings would be brought, and the community would gather.  In Parshat Shmini, Aaron brings the first offering given at the Tabernacle.  It’s an exciting new beginning, repudiating the wrong of worshipping a golden calf, and instead bringing a calf to God. The text tells us that Aaron blesses the people and then God’s Presence appears to the community.  Fire comes forth and the offering is consumed. The people are amazed; they celebrate and bow low in reverence.  This is how it should be!

And suddenly, disaster strikes!  Everything changes in a moment. Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, each take their fire pan and make an offering before God.  The only detail we are given is that they offer “alien fire/esh zarah,” that God had not commanded them to offer, and suddenly the fire bursts forth and consumes Nadav and Avihu. No blame is assigned and no wrongdoing is mentioned.

This tragedy strikes for reasons we don’t understand.  Everything changes in a moment from new beginnings to loss and pain.  Reality shifts forever and individuals and the community are thrust into intense grief.  This year particularly the story stirs us, as we feel the similarities between that moment and our current lives in ways we have never before experienced.  What guidance might the parsha offer?

One lesson is how people leap to find an answer that explains what happened.  Generations of rabbinic commentary seek to explain what Nadav and Avihu did wrong, looking for clues in the details and context to teach us what brings on disaster.  While such causalities have their place in an interpretive tradition which seeks to find modern truths in ancient texts, assigning blame does not seem right at this moment. It is too easy to blame, and that does not allow us to dig deeper into lessons we need to learn.  Perhaps the purpose of this story is to caution us against leaping to blame.  Sometimes there is rhyme or reason, but we do not know it.  Sometimes there is no one to blame; sometimes the situation is simply tragic and that is all that can or should be said.

The race to explain and blame plays out in Moses’ response.  Immediately following the boys’ death, Moses proclaims “This is what the Lord meant when God said: ‘Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.’” (Lev. 10:3).  What does he mean?  Is he teaching that there some Divine purpose in this moment; that God is glorified through these tragic deaths?  That needs to be explored; I am not sure I fully understand it. But the implication that somehow this tragedy is meant to bring glory to God is unsettling and, for me, upsetting. This year, I am reading Moses’ response as an important lesson, namely, that we are so uncomfortable accepting that which defies explanation that we offer conclusions and theories so that things “make sense.”  Like so many of us, Moses needs a way to understand these tragic and inexplicable events. Yet those attempts to explain, justify, blame, or easily categorize do us a disservice.

So many have tried to explain the unexplainable this past year, jumping to conclusions and latching on to small details to explain that which is in fact complicated and requiring deeper understanding.  It can also be so hurtful!  Imagine Aaron hearing those words, “Through those near to Me I show Myself holy and gain glory before all the people.” If I were Aaron, those words would infuriate and hurt me!  I would be saying: “My boys’ death is meant to give God glory?! How dare you say that? Maybe God should have a little less glory and the boys should be alive!  How terrible to blame the boys!”  When we put ourselves in Aaron’s shoes, we realize that we need to be cautious about leaping to conclusions and finding explanations. We need to be aware that our rush to judgment can actually create even more pain.

Aaron doesn’t respond to Moses’ conclusion.  In two powerful words that hold many lessons, the text says, vayidom Aharon/Aaron was silent. What is meant by this silence?  It lends itself to so many possible explanations:

Was it the silence of submission and acceptance?

Was it the silence of numb shock?

Was it the silence of anguish too great to voice?

Was it knowledge that words would unleash an anger and pain that was too much to bear, with things that might be said that can never be taken back?

Was it the silence of space to process and feel?

As we explore this silence, we find thoughtful responses to this past year:     Silence reminds that there are sometimes no words to capture the pain of loss and suffering people have experience, vayidom Aharon. Silence breeds humility and honesty.

Silence gives time to reflect, something that has been missing as people leap to blame or scream about their truth, vayidom Aharon.

          Silence allows us to feel and gives space for emotion.  If we don’t create space for emotion, it will come out in unhealthy ways, vayidom Aharon.

Silence gives us the ability to delve deeper into the lessons we need to explore.  These are the key spiritual lessons of this moment, reflecting and acting on issues like:

Mental health – the impact on mental health will far outlast the pandemic; Loneliness, how many people feel painfully alone, and the lasting impact of that reality;

Various economic and societal needs – how many people need help in so many ways;

And might silence allow for acceptance that there are limits to what we understand?  Vayidom Aharon.

          We need to create space for the lessons of Aaron’s silence.

          And there is more to the aftermath of this tragedy than Aaron’s silence.  We read that Moses calls the boys’ first cousins, Mishael and Elzaphon, to help out.  Listen to the words: “Come close and carry your brothers away from the face of the Holy, to a place outside the camp.  They came close and carried them out of the camp by their tunics, as Moses had ordered.” (Lev. 10:4-5).  Think about how risky and dangerous is their task. They are to take the bodies away “from the face of the Holy”. It is forbidden and dangerous for them to enter that spot! They are called upon to take out impure corpses.  Imagine their trepidation.  Yet they overcome fear and “come close,” the same words used for their cousins, yet this time with a different outcome.

If this past year has taught us anything, it is that people who “come close” and take risks for others are the true heroes who we need to lift us up.  Each week we have honored caregivers and essential workers.  Their courage and stepping forward, often in the face of danger, sustains, teaches and inspires us.   The power of kindness is the essential lesson of this past year.  When unpredictable pain and tragedy strikes, seek to live a life of chesed/lovingkindness. Let’s create time to reflect on how we can bring more chesed into each day.

As the story progresses, we see Moses change.  He continues to try to control things, angrily telling Aaron and his remaining two sons Eleazar and Ithamar that they did the offerings in an improper way.  You can feel Moses’ anxiety and upset.  But Aaron responds in a way that changes Moses’ view.  Aaron rhetorically asks, “If I had done it right, would the Lord have approved?”  And Moses gets it; the text says, va’yitav b’einav/it was good in his eyes.  Aaron finds the words to let his brother know that rebuke, blame, shame, anger and scurrying to respond without thinking weren’t helping, and Moses was able to hear him.

Can we listen as Moses did, slowing down, no longer blaming and just being present?  Can we find our voices as Aaron did?

This past year has taught us the lessons of Shmini, that pain is a real part of life.  May we learn the lessons of Aaron, to allow for silence and know that our voices will return.  May we learn from Moses, listening rather than rushing to fix and blame; and being aware of the propensity to leap to conclusions when we need to reflect and be present.  May we learn from Mishael and Eliphaz, that kindness and courage, connection and love are the gifts which will allow us to emerge from this most difficult and painful years. May we grow emotionally and spiritually. May we hold on to these powerful lessons.

Shabbat Shalom