One month ago, a family in Brooklyn started to celebrate Shabbat. Gabriel Sassoon, father of eight children, was at a Jewish conference away from home. His wife Gayle was taking care of their children. I imagine that they lit Shabbat candles and had a beautiful Shabbat meal before Gayle tucked her children into bed.
As is customary in traditional homes, Gayle was using a hot plate on her stove to warm food for the continuation of Shabbat on Saturday. Commonly called a blech, this hot plate allows Jews to have hot food on Shabbat without violating the prohibition of lighting a fire on Shabbat. If you have ever experienced a traditional Shabbat afternoon meal, it is often a very thick and hearty (and delicious) stew called cholent.
Shortly before midnight, the hot plate malfunctioned and caught fire. Unimaginable tragedy ensued as Gabriel & Gayle lost seven of their eight children to this horrific accident. Thousands continue to mourn with them in their tight-knit community of Midwood.
This recent incident bears a painful resemblance to our Torah portion this week, Sh'mini.
Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire-holder, and they put fire in them and set incense on it. They brought forward unfitting fire, which God had not commanded. Fire came out from in front of God and consumed them, and they died in front of God.
Aaron was the high priest, the Kohen HaGadol. He was a righteous man, following the laws that he learned from his brother Moses. He made mistakes ... when Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 day, Aaron coordinated the building of the golden calf. But this is to say that he was human. Leaders make mistakes. But what is the mistake of his sons? All the Torah says is that they brought eish zara, strange fire. It also says that God did not command this fire. But taken at face value, isn't it possible that Aaron's children were trying to imitate their father? They, like their father, were trying to be role-models. Even if they did make a mistake, what could be so egregious as to deserve death?
I could spend the six weeks between tonight and Shavuot talking about the various rabbinic midrashim concerning this portion. The rabbis go through all manner of intellectual gymnastics to make Aaron's sons sinful, prideful sons that wanted to wrest power away from their father and uncle so that they could wield it themselves. I talked about this last year when I explained the concept of Tziduk HaDin. Rather than display anger toward God, there are instead various justifications of God's actions that create stories blaming Nadav and Avihu. This is Tziduk HaDin, the justification of God's actions.
The Sassoon's have experienced their share of Tziduk HaDin as well. On Facebook, many friends and colleagues implicitly blamed them for this tragedy, if not explicitly: If it weren't for the antiquated rules of Shabbat, some said, the tragedy would have been avoided. Some people wrote things like, This is why I am not Orthodox.
I shudder at such comments.
It's probably true that all of us drove here tonight. I'm guessing that some of us will turn on TV's in the next twenty-four hours, shop, turn on lights in our homes, cook, write, build things, and so on. But, as we discuss quite often in adult education, the way that we live our Jewish lives is sometimes antithetical to Jewish law. It is ... strange fire.
The Sassoon children did not die because they lived an Orthodox lifestyle. They died because they did not have a working smoke alarm on one of the floors in their home. I have been neglectful of protective measures like this, and I guess the same goes for many here. Jewish observance did not cause this tragedy. Orthodoxy did not cause this tragedy.
Ultimately, the story of Nadav and Avihu reminds us that sometimes, there are no words, no explanations, no logical reasoning. Creation is filled with randomness and pain, with the same chaos and void - Tohu VaVohu - that even God had to contend with. We may want to come up with rational explanations of Tziduk HaDin, but instead, let us mourn. This is not only the right response, it is the Jewish response.
After Aaron's sons die, Aaron is told to stand silently. When I learned this as a child, I thought that this added even more pain to an already unbearable situation, as Aaron must be suffering torment, especially as he has to continue with his responsibilities as high priest. But now I read it a bit differently. Perhaps this is my own Tziduk HaDin, but so be it.
He is silent because sometimes, words, explanations and rationalizations do not help. We can only be one community standing together, facing each other, and ultimately, helping each other cross the Red Sea into the promised land.