Shemini, or ‘eighth,’ is not a portion about Crazy Eights. It does start by telling us what should happen on the eighth day (unusual for the Bible, wherein so many things happen on the seventh day), and dives right into some more sacrifices, in case you hadn’t had enough yet. Then the book of Leviticus goes on to recount one of the more horrifying incidents in the Bible. Two sons of Aaron, nephews of Moses, priests in their own right, are consumed by a strange flame that they conjure on the altar in the Tent of Meeting.
“Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord strange fire, which He had not enjoined upon them.” we read in Leviticus 10:1. The next verse tells how “fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died in the presence of the Lord.”
Then, the most heartbreaking verse, Leviticus 10:3. “Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the Lord meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people,’ and Aaron was silent.”
This section of the Torah may have been intended to inspire shock and awe, but it always inspired fury and confusion in me. Even when I perused the words of the great commentators — Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Ramban — to find an answer for why this was necessary, I came up empty-handed. Rashi tells us that “when the Holy One, blessed be He, executes judgment upon the righteous He becomes feared, and exalted and praised,” among other interpretations of the text at hand.
It’s curious to me that the biblical author takes the time to mention that Aaron fell silent at the sight of his sons’ execution. Aaron has thus far been cast as a sort of accessory to Moses — the older brother who serves as a guide and a mouthpiece for his ambitious younger brother with a speech impediment. All of a sudden, Aaron is human. A father.
Those four words (two in Hebrew) cast a long shadow on the rest of the text. Throughout it all, the only thing I can imagine is Aaron standing there, struck dumb by horror and grief.
Moses calls family members to get rid of the brothers’ bodies and instructs them not to participate in the traditional mourning rituals, such as ripping their clothes. They’re not even allowed to leave the Tent of Meeting until they’ve been properly cleansed of the holy oil. Then, to add insult to injury, it’s implied that Nadav and Avihu were killed because they were drunk at the time of sacrifice. “Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die,” says Moses in Leviticus 10:9.
So, what — this is their fault? Even if they were intoxicated, was it really necessary to consume them in flames, to ban their family from mourning them?
It breaks my heart. Every time.
This week I got my first Covid-19 vaccine. My arm ached for two days, and I had chills, nausea, and an overall sick feeling. It wasn’t fun, but oh wow, it was a relief. I made some small talk with the person who administered the vaccine, but inside my heart was pounding. This answer to a year of strife was sitting right there, on the desk. Unbelievable. As soon as I sat down in the waiting room after getting my shot a veritable tsunami of emotions swept over me.
Disbelief. Gratitude. Joy. Grief. Longing.
In just a few seconds, everything about my life had changed; a year of isolation and distance was miles closer to being over. I still can’t articulate how it feels to know that my wife and I are joining the ranks of the vaccinated, those lucky few who can hug each other and meet in closed spaces, sans masks.
This week’s Parsha also brings with it a strange mix of emotions. First, the profound understanding that a tragedy has befallen the camp and it cannot be recanted. Space must be made for grief, as Aaron goes on to demand a few verses later when he describes that “such things have befallen me!”
Second, the realization that this tragedy is not flat. On the contrary, it holds within it unspeakable loss that, nonetheless, needs to be spoken. But it also holds over a year of experiences and learning that we wouldn’t have gained otherwise. To be clear, pandemic life is not how I imagined spending the first two years of my child’s time in the world. But it’s still what happened. Aaron certainly never imagined that his sons would err so terribly or that their punishment would be so severe.
Sometimes, it seems impossible to move forwards, and we have to anyway. Moving forwards, I’m going to try not to forget this time in our family’s life. The things it gave us, as well as the things it took away, are meaningful and are sure to impact all of our paths—and the paths of our community. Even though I can’t wait to hug my friends and family, now that we’re safely vaccinated, I don’t want to leave it all behind. I think the sorrow is an important part of the story, the whole story, and the only way to be an honest parent and partner is to acknowledge that. No matter how painful it is.