When something seems to go wrong,
it’s invariably part of a larger right.
~ Jed McKenna ~
When Bad Things Happen to Good People
As I write this, a dearly cherished friend lies in an ICU with a massive brain bleed; his allotted time on this earth is down to the count of hours. In my view, the world is a lot better off with my friend in it, and so his shocking premature death hits very hard. For the umpteenth time, it seems, I am engaging in that age–old theological enterprise, “theodicy,” which, according to scholar James A, Diamond, refers to “the justification of a benevolent God by reconciling His goodness with what appears as injustice and undeserved suffering in the world.” I know I’m dating myself, but that Monty Python portrayal of God as a giant foot that comes down from heaven to squash the puny humans below resonates with a lot of people.
Thus, in Shemini, we have one of those Monty Python moments, a Biblical buzz kill, if you will. For several weeks, we have been reading – and re-reading – the intricate details of the building of the Mishkan, which was the portable Tabernacle that housed the Ark of the Ten Commandments. Spiritually, the Mishkan represented a portal and a tangible connection between man and God. At long last, in an elaborate ritual conducted by Aaron and his two sons, Nadav and Avihu, the Mishkan was dedicated with fire-blazing pomp and ceremony. In a sort of private “after-party,” the two young men snuck into the Holy of Holies of the Mishkan bringing with them an incense offering, which the Torah described as a “strange fire which God had not commanded.” As before, a fire descended from heaven, but instead of consuming the offering, it consumed Nadav and Avihu instead, killing them on the spot.
Playing the Blame Game
One explanation was that they were drunk. Lawyers refer to this as discrediting the victim. After all, one does not enter God’s inner chamber in an inebriated state and expect to survive the encounter. Another explanation is that they chose to worship God in an unauthorized manner, making up their own version of divine service. What chutzpah!
Even so, a God that metes out the death penalty for spiritual hi-jinks is rather harsh. Such a view portrays God not just as unloving, but also as the ultimate petty bureaucrat in heaven, elevating form over substance to a ridiculous extreme. Before accepting the Torah, we were wooed with the language of love. Talk about “the morning after!” Did the Jewish people need to be taught such a lesson? The answer is “yes,” but not what you may think.
In an article entitled, The Pursuit of the Spiritual Life, Rabbi Shneur cites the Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) as portraying Nadav and Avihu not as arrogant, undisciplined drunks but, in fact, as two highly spiritually aware and engaged individuals. Accordingly, their deaths arose not as a punishment from God for misbehavior, but rather, a natural consequence of their deep spiritual yearning. According to the Kabbalah, Rabbi Shneur explains, there are two primary drives in the human experience: the drive to be grounded and also the drive, to the point of extreme yearning even, for spiritual experience. Nadav and Avihu’s deep longing to experience God was fulfilled, to the point where their physical bodies were extinguished, as if their holiness was subsumed within God.
Thus, Moses consoled Aaron with these words: “This is what God meant when He said: ‘Through those near to Me I will sanctify Myself, and be glorified before all the people.’ And Aaron was silent.” (10:3)
Given the fact that Moses considered the deaths of Nadav and Avihu to be a sanctification of God- and not a desecration to God – I don’t understand why there is a need to create the narrative of a human crime and divine punishment. Perhaps a deeper lesson is that we can have a benevolent, loving God and also see that Nadav and Ahivu were righteous and spiritually striving individuals. Sometimes, you can have a “right” and a “right.”
Ironically, however, it can still be a “wrong,” in that Nadav and Avihu are not role models for us to emulate. God doesn’t want us to die for the sake of Torah; rather we should live for the sake of Torah – fully in this world – albeit grounded and balanced between our physical and spiritual drives. Thus, our soul-driven urges are expressed in this world via those physical acts, which infuse this earthly realm with holiness. The macro becomes the micro and vice versa.
Aaron’s “silence” at the news of the death of his sons was neither passive submission nor denial. Rather, it was a state of being “broken-open,” and making a moral choice of possibility in the face of the impossible. While his illness is a hard pill to swallow, my friend did not waste his precious remaining time with bitterness and complaints and he did not disconnect from that which had given his whole life a sense of meaning and purpose.
Recognizing that it is a very hard lesson, nevertheless, when we can make an internal space that holds within it both suffering and a loving God, we may find therein a deeper connection to our Creator, a greater appreciation for blessings, and the motivation to recommit our lives to that which truly counts with more fervor and dedication.