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Parashat Beshalach: In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - Get Going!

April 17, 2020

Some of you know that I am a big fan of the weather, especially the weather in the Berkshires. So this morning, as I usually do, I opened up my favorite weather website, and I was shocked. 2-7 inches of snow predicted, tonight and tomorrow, for the county. Shabbat shalom, indeed. My first thought about this unusual and hard-to-explain natural occurrence - Why?!

In this week’s Torah portion, Sh’mini, natural and unnatural elements come together to prompt us to ask that same question - why? Aaron, Moses’ brother and the High Priest, and Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, also priests, are performing celebratory ritual duties in God’s presence. Each time they offer a sacrifice, it is swallowed up by a miraculous fire. This ritual scene quickly takes a turn, as the focus shifts to Nadav and Abihu. We read in our text:

“Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avinu each took his fire pan, and put fire on it, and they offered before the Eternal alien fire - strange fire - which had not been enjoined upon them. And fire came forth forth from the Eternal and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Eternal.” (Lev. 10:1-2).

Why, we find ourselves asking at the end of this story? What was so wrong about offering that strange, alien fire? Why did Nadav and Abihu have to die? This difficult, story, the loss of young men at the beginning of their life and their career, holds resonance for us as a community, having recently lost our beloved member, Jessica Cutler. 

Both in our local community and in the entire, broader world around us, we find ourselves asking that same question - why? Why are we facing this global pandemic? Why are people we know, people we love, dying from this disease? Why must we stay apart from family and friends? Why is this happening to us? Why?

In some ways, this story from this week’s Torah portion provides me with a little bit of relief from these deep, unanswerable questions of life and death, because they have been with us for generations and for centuries. 

Many of our rabbis, teachers, and commentators have attempted to understand what happened in that moment, and each attempted to paint the legacy of Nadav and Abihu with a different brush. Some say, they were righteous except for this one moment. Some say, they were wicked at heart. Some say they invented a new ritual against God’s wishes. I can’t get on board with that one, because innovation in ritual is essential to thriving, living Judaism. Some even say they were drunk when they performed the sacrifices. Each of our sages looks for an answer to that question - why? - why did they have to die? and none of them are remotely satisfactory.

In our post-modern understanding of God’s role in the world, we don’t believe in cause and effect, in reward and punishment for our actions - as Reform Jews, we decidedly omit the middle paragraph of the V’ahavta, which understands the world in this way:

If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Eternal your God and serving [God] with all your heart and soul, I will grant rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late rain. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil— I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle—and thus you shall eat your fill. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For the Eternal’s anger will flare up against you, and God will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Eternal is assigning to you. (Numb. 15)

We know the world doesn’t work this way. We know rain falls when rain falls, and fire burns when fire burns. And diseases - pandemics - break out and take lives. The actions that we take DO have an impact on the natural world; and yet, there is still no Divine punishment, no Divine tally, chalking up our offenses. There is no one to one relationship between our actions and the way God, the Author of Life and Death, responds. 

Sometimes I think it might be easier if we did believe in this system of Divine retribution. It would provide us, perhaps, with some logic, however flawed. But that’s not who we are. Because of the very fact that we can argue with our tradition and wrestle with our texts, because we look to science and history as well as spirituality and faith - that means, we’re back to asking, why, and we may never have an answer.

Snow in April, death and disease, strange fire, and rain for our land in its season. Fire and rain, sang the Berkshire’s own prophet and poet, James Taylor. Some forces in the universe are bigger than us, bigger than we can comprehend. And so we are left to ask - why?

Sometimes, when there are no answers, when we cannot comprehend any cause and effect or how we arrived at this moment of loss and memory, we can look at Aaron’s response when he learned what happened to Nadav and Abihu. 

Vayidom Aharon. 
And Aaron was silent. (Lev. 10:3)

Sometimes the questions are so loud in our minds, that even if we are silent on the outside, we are yelling in our minds. Let’s take a moment now and quiet ourselves both outside and inside. In our silence, let us take a moment for memories of our loved ones, those lost in recent days, and those who left us long ago but remain close to us, always. How would that person or those people respond right now to the question of why? In honor of the tradition of Yizkor, I will share the names of the loved ones we lost this year on our screen now, since we can’t share Yizkor books with you.

Vayidom Aharon. 
With Aaron, let’s take a moment of silence.

Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch
Temple Anshe Amunim | Pittsfield, MA

Fri, March 1 2024 21 Adar I 5784