A punishment in search of a crime

A punishment in search of a crime

Shemini — Leviticus 9:1-11:47

As we navigate the disruptions and challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, our ancient Torah stories serve as one way of gaining perspective and extracting wisdom for these challenging times.

This Torah portion includes a brief and troubling account of a sudden, random, and devastating moment of disruption. Just as they are preparing to participate in the first sacrificial offerings in the newly constructed portable sanctuary, Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, are destroyed by a burst of divine fire. The story is troubling, elusive, and ambiguous.

What exactly did Nadav and Avihu do wrong? What could have warranted execution by “a fire that came out from before the Lord and consumed them”? (Leviticus 10:1) Aren’t two junior-league priests on their first day on the job entitled to a reprimand rather than losing their lives? Why would someone write such a story, and what message are we supposed to take from the text?

Jewish commentators react to this story across a continuum, from traditional acceptance to contemporary complaint. Premised on the assumption that their deaths must be justified, many traditional commentators hold a negative view of Nadav and Avihu, adding explanations for their demise that the Torah itself does not record.

A minority of commentators attribute a pious proclivity to Nadav and Avihu, seeing them as acting out of a desire to be close to and serve God. When they inadvertently cross a sacred boundary, they regrettably but automatically suffer the consequences, much as one might when tinkering with an electrical repair.

But the apparent randomness of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu still leave us unsettled. Commenting on this story, Dr. Edward Greenstein calls it “a punishment in search of a crime.” Put differently, in the face of random tragedy, there are few if any answers that satisfy.

Sacred narratives help us navigate the disorder and disarray that most often live at the edges of our perceptions — but that can, in moments such as we now find ourselves, break through, with all of the anxiety, fear, and uncertainty that we now experience. When we read the story of Nadav and Avihu, we know we are not the first people called upon to react to unanticipated challenges and the random loss of life.

When we face challenges to the taken-for-granted rhythm of life — in moments of illness and of loss, of tragedy and of suffering, of disruption, despair, and distress — in those moments we can use the sacred stories of Jewish tradition as a platform for conversation and connection to help us respond, recover, and rebuild.

Despite the best efforts of classical commentators to explain the story of Nadav and Avihu, we cannot know why it is that life so often leaves us vulnerable, hurt, and afraid. But while some may think the role of religion is to explain suffering and sadness, Jewish tradition is more concerned about how we respond. And the greater the disruption, the more we are called upon to stay focused on compassion, caring, kindness, and connections. May these attributes support us as we face the unprecedented challenges of our season.

Rabbi Richard Hirsch engages in independent rabbinic projects in Bryn Mawr, Pa.

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