Does Everything Happen for a Reason (Shmini)

Everything happens for a reason.

Many of us have probably said this, and if not, we’ve certainly heard it. Someone loses a job, ends a relationship, or the Bulldawgs lose a game. And to make sense of these sorts of things, we have this ubiquitous response, Well … everything happens for a reason.

We want things to be meaningful – to make sense. And sometimes we justify what happens to us (and to those around us) by alluding to some larger reality, or truth, or meaning, or comfort. We say Everything happens for a reason to assuage our anger or fear, or guilt, or sadness. It points to a higher “meaning” that reminds us that although this experience may be sad, there’s a treasure that’s waiting to be discovered behind it. And so, we are comforted that perhaps the world isn’t a harsh place of suffering and randomness, but rather purpose and meaning.

Judaism is filled with this sentiment. There is a Jewish concept of Tziduk HaDin”that I want to talk about tonight. You probably know both words; Tziduk comes from the same root as Tzedakah. And Din is the same word we use when we talk about a Beit Din; a Jewish court. Tziduk HaDin, then, is the justification of God’s judgment, or the righteousness of God’s judgment.

Here’s an example: God floods the Earth and kills every single human being on the planet, except for Noah and his immediate family. Rather than denounce God for enacting a cruel, destructive act, we maintain that humanity was selfish and mean, not respecting God or each other. And in so doing, we do Tziduk HaDin – we justify God’s actions.

This week’s Torah portion has what might be the most egregious, painful example of Tziduk HaDin.

Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, approach the altar, and they make a sacrifice to God. Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Eternal alien fire, which had not been enjoined upon them.

They had not been asked to make a sacrifice. They had not been commanded. This is akin to you surprising your spouse or a friend by taking them out to a favorite restaurant. The “strange fire” the Torah speaks of alludes to an incorrect practice; they did not perform the sacrifice correctly. They made a mistake.

So what happens?

Fire came forth from the Eternal and consumed them. They died at the instance of the Eternal.

God killed them.

If we were to read commentaries and midrashim, we would read that Nadav and Abihu were surreptitiously staging a coup d’état, attempting to steal power and prestige from their uncle Moses and their father, Aaron. We would learn that they were selfish, desiring God’s blessing for themselves. They were not leading the people with the spiritual wholesomeness of their father and uncle. And so, because of the reasons listed above, they got what they deserved.

But here’s the thing; the Torah does not say that. There is nary a hint of the kind of malignancies that our rabbis are trying to inculcate into our understanding. The two sons simply approached the altar, without being asked, and performed a sacrifice, and may have gotten it not quite 100% correct.

Aaron's sons deviated from the law. Think about this for a moment ... don't each of us deviate from Jewish law when we drive to synagogue on Friday night? Tonight, we are also playing instruments. From the pshat, the plain meaning of the Torah portoin, Aaron's sons are not troublemakers. They are two Jews trying to experience holiness in the best way that they know to do. We are Nadav and Abihu. We also try our best ... And sometimes what we do may in face also be "strange fire."

The story of Aaron's sons challenges us that perhaps we should refrain from our inclinations to find order and meaning in our lives. Sometimes, things don't make sense. Perhaps sometimes, God does something mean ... or wrong ... or immoral. Tziduk HaDin is an easy way out. Instead, let's embrace the ambiguity of our tradition. Let us accept the inconsistencies, the stories that may not make sense ... these are a part of our Jewish identities. It is up to us to create the meanings from them. In that sense, maybe everything does happen for a reason after all.

The Plague of Gossip (Metzora)

Remembering to Forget (Shabbat Zachor)