The Strange Case of the Strange Fire: Parshat Sh’mini
Leviticus, the third book of the Torah, is well-known as the priestly code. In its early chapter we read about the animal sacrifices that the priests- Aaron and sons- were to bring before the Lord in the sanctuary built by the people to serve their God. These sacrifices were the main avenue of Israelite approach to God and the priests played the crucial role as mediators between the people and God. So it is shocking in chapter 10 to read what happened to Aaron’s two oldest sons.
Now Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his fire pan, put fire in it and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord (verses 1-2.).
Much is not clear in this terse narrative. Were Nadab and Abihu asked to take their fire pans and bring in fire? If so, what is an alien fire? How did this alien or strange fire defy God’s orders? And why was this offense so grievous that God consumed them on the spot?
As happens often in Jewish tradition, when the Torah fails to supply the many details we need to understand what happened, the commentators jump in with many differing interpretations. To them there is an absolute need to know what happened and why. This is a potentially highly destabilizing story. We are, after all, reading about Aaron, Moses’ older brother who co-lead the Exodus from Egypt and was subsequently honored with becoming the first High Priest. Aaron has been told that the priesthood was to be hereditary and that his sons would succeed him in this role. And here, two of his four sons are struck dead, the two oldest who might well have been his immediate successors. Were these sons evil? Or had they made a terrible error of judgment for which they paid with their lives? And is this God so fraught that He can, without explaining, strike dead two of the highest priests?
I leave you to explore the many possible responses to these questions. What strikes me, writing during Passover week, is that ours is a tradition that honors questions more than responses. We know that the commentators will work their way out of this terrible dilemma, but that the ways out are less lasting than the dilemma itself. Answers fade with time. Questions last a life time, indeed many life times. In my view the very beauty of a Jewish education is not that our developing children are armed with responses, but that they realize they come from a people who pursue lasting questions and expect of them the same: a life time of studying and posing questions.