In the Book of Isaiah, we read:
“I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.” (Isaiah 43:19)
And in Acharei Mot, we read:
“The Eternal One spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Eternal. The Eternal One said to Moses, ‘Tell your brother Aaron…’” (Lev. 16:1-2)
Our Torah portion opens in the wake of tragedy. Following the sudden death of Aaron’s children, we read of God’s commanded rites and rituals placed upon him in grief. This retrospective reference to the demise of Nadab and Abihu invites the reader to revisit the loss, subtly suggesting there are lingering messages to behold. We recall Leviticus 10 and the juxtaposition of Aaron’s inauguration as High Priest on the very same day as his sons’ deaths; Aaron’s offering on the altar is favorably consumed by God, while Nadab and Abihu’s subsequent sacrifice consumes them instead. This brutal sequence leaves Aaron silenced in inconsolable grief.
Details remain sparse. We are informed that the sons offered a “strange fire” not commanded by God. Against the levitical backdrop of prescriptive precision, we are left in mystery as to the reasoning behind these deaths.
In the midst of trauma and tragedy, our human instinct is to understand the story that led to it. When we learn of hospitalization or death, our immediate response tends to be a need for narrative clarity: “What happened?” Some of us find comfort in understanding the sequences that led to the rending of health and life. The shock of a cancer diagnosis may be cushioned if we can blame unhealthy life choices; a sudden death if we may determine the deceased had a “full life.” But such understanding, such holding of the story that leads to loss, does not change the reality of loss. And in seeking the story of what was we may miss the horror of what is. The death of one’s children is horrific without qualification. Rabbinic commentary that places blame upon Nadab and Abihu helps calm existential angst by implying such a fate never would occur to righteous rule-followers (see "The Rabbinic and Philonic Exegesis of the Nadab and Abihu Incident,” Jewish Quarterly Review 73 (1983), pp. 375-393).
Linking tragedy only to human error may seek to contain horror, but it does so by distancing us from the existential possibility that calamity may not be controllable. In attributing our darkest times to the hand of humanity or divinity, we may cry against the resulting injustice yet remain comforted by the sense that there at least existed the power to subvert such a fate. Far more frightening is the possibility such a power is the story of fantasy; far more terrifying the notion that we exist in a wilderness of uncertainty.
Some have suggested that the most textually astute reading of Nadab and Abihu’s death is indeed one of mystery. Professor Ed Greenstein posits that reading their death as a ritual misfire misses the true power of the passage: no amount of precision in ritual and behavior should ever leave us with the delusion that we have brought God or the universe under our control. They may have engaged in precisely the same behavior as their father on the same day in the same way, and inexplicably this one resulted in horror rather than honor (Steven Kepnes, ed., Interpreting Judaism in a Postmodern Age [NY and London: New York University Press, 1995], pp. 21-54). The Jerusalem Talmud seems to land in a similar space, imagining God sitting for seven days of grief regarding Nadab and Abihu’s death. In this Rabbinic framing, God weeps in heartbreak at such tragedy, without qualification or justification. Here, Nadab and Abihu are neither saints nor sinners, framed neither as innocent bystanders nor foolish failures. God seems to let go of a causal story, instead focusing on a response of grief – a grief that moves forward rather than backward. And it is this Rabbinic frame that is used as a source for our own human practices of shiva (Jerusalem Talmud, Mo-eid Katan 15a).
Many of us expend tremendous energy seeking to understand the roots of trial, tribulation, and tragedy. We dedicate our immediate attentions to the retrospective, trying to lessen the chaos of uncertainty. Parashat Acharei Mot, in its very opening words, wants us to focus on what happens “after the deaths.” We bear witness to a father drawn in duty to a path before him. We see a text uninterested in casting aspersion or judgment on either his sons or his loss. And instead, we see the actions that take him forward beyond the unimaginable.
In Sister in the Wilderness, Dr. Delores Williams develops her womanist theology of God as that which “makes a way out of no way.” Out of her own life and writings focusing on the intersection of oppressions of race, gender, and class, Dr. Williams notes the ways in which we may be imprisoned by the past when our gaze only looks backwards. She posits that God is not found in the things that hold us back nor forces us to suffer. Rather, God is found as the One Who presents a path forward when it seems most impossible (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993), p. 198).
Nested within the performative precision of Leviticus, perhaps this is the power of our parashah’s opening words. In the frightening and uncertain waters of tragedy, God speaks into the space of Aaron’s silence and urges him to action. Greater perhaps than even his priesthood, we see the courage of one father to exist in impossible loss, and to find God’s voice opening a way. No rite nor ritual will inoculate us from calamity. No story will shield us from the reality of uncertainty. But in a God Who weeps with us, we are offered a trajectory beyond tragedy: Divinity as possibility.
Who will live and who will die?
Who by fire and who by water?
Who by sword and who by beast?
Each year on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we chant the haunting melody of Un’taneh Tokef. Our tradition compels us to confront the uncertainty of our future and the randomness of horrific tragedy in our world. Our parashah, Acharei Mot I, reminds us of this unsettling truth right before God instructs Moses to inform Aaron about the ritual of Yom Kippur: “He shall be dressed in a sacral linen tunic, with linen breeches next to his flesh, and be girt with a linen sash, and he shall wear a linen turban” (Lev. 16:4). Like Aaron, we wear simple linen clothes on Yom Kippur to humbly admit that we are not in control of the universe.
Yet despite our annual admission of powerlessness, our ritual recitation of Un’taneh Tokef ends with a promise of control: “But repentance, prayer, and tzedakah avert the severe decree.” Surely in this modern world, intellectually, we know that we cannot control the randomness of the universe. Even Rabbi Spratt concedes, “No rite or ritual will inoculate us from calamity.” Ritual may not “inoculate us from calamity,” but we do understand ritual’s life-altering powers. Ask any young woman after she completes the Torah reading on the day of her bat mitzvah or any wedding couple standing under the chuppah or any mourner after sitting shiva if they have not felt the transformative power of ritual. My teacher, Rabbi Larry Hoffman, teaches that if the purpose of a play in a theater is to offer a performance in order to entertain its patrons, the job of a ritual is to create transformation to compel its participants to go out and change the world.
Perhaps the lesson hidden in our parashah’s reminder of the deaths of Aaron’s sons – juxtaposed with our humble demeanor and admission of powerlessness on Yom Kippur – is that ritual done poorly is equally as damaging to the world as ritual done well is healing for our world. Reciting the lines of Un’taneh Tokef and performing acts of repentance, prayer, and tzedakah will not “inoculate us from calamity.” But, if we approach this ritual wholeheartedly, we have the potential to be transformed and compelled to go out into the world and enact these righteous pursuits. If we as an entire Jewish people are transformed by this liturgical ritual, then we can surely transcend the universe’s harsh decree of randomness and bring wholeness, healing, and peace to our world.
Acharei Mot I, Leviticus 16:1−17:16
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 858−876; Revised Edition, pp. 769–776
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 679–688
Haftarah, Ezekiel 22:1-14
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 997−998; Revised Edition, pp. 795−796