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Naomi Graetz

How to Address the Inexplicable: Parshat Shemini

I find myself, as most teachers do today, looking at traditional texts that I have always taken for granted, and seeing them in new ways. Obviously, that is the point of studying, to keep learning from them and keeping them alive and relevant. However, this tendency has become exaggerated since October 7th. I find myself, and others, relating to biblical texts and the aggadah about them in totally new ways. Until October 7th many of my close friends and acquaintances would have classified ourselves as centrist liberals, leaning to left. And I still do. I am also capable of seeing both sides—the good and what we refer to as evil. BUT it has become harder and harder for me to hold on to the concepts of the potential good in all people. Evil in the world is here to stay. Can we fight it? Should we bother, when we know in advance that it cannot ever be eradicated? I have almost finished teaching the book of Job which I started teaching in October 2022. God indirectly answers Job from the whirlwind and seems to be either relating to the Leviathan as his evil twin, or as the enemy which he has to fight very hard to put down. If God, the divine self, has doubts about giving answers to addressing evil and unjust suffering, how are we to do this? Yet it is always worth a try—and our tradition has tried to come to grips with evil over the years. But what if God is evil, or allows himself to be used by evil forces as in the case of Job. Yesterday evening as I studied chapter one of Job with another class, I suddenly saw the terrible bargain God makes with the Adversary (Satan) through the eyes of October 7th:

The LORD said to the Adversary, “Have you noticed My servant, Job? There is no one like him on earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and shuns evil!” The Adversary answered the LORD, “Does Job not have good reason to fear God? Why, it is You who have fenced him round, him and his household and all that he has. You have blessed his efforts so that his possessions spread out in the land. But lay Your hand upon all that he has and he will surely blaspheme You to Your face.” The LORD replied to the Adversary, “See, all that he has is in your power; only do not lay a hand on him.” The Adversary departed from the presence of the LORD. One day, as his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in the house of their eldest brother, a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the she-asses were grazing alongside them when Sabeans attacked them and carried them off, and put the boys to the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.” This one was still speaking when another came and said, “God’s fire fell from heaven, took hold of the sheep and the boys, and burned them up; I alone have escaped to tell you.” This one was still speaking when another came and said, “A Chaldean formation of three columns made a raid on the camels and carried them off and put the boys to the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.” This one was still speaking when another came and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in the house of their eldest brother when suddenly a mighty wind came from the wilderness. It struck the four corners of the house so that it collapsed upon the young people and they died; I alone have escaped to tell you.

As I finished reading this to my class, I had to pause—this was what happened on October 7th. Children were put to the sword—shot down; young people died when terrorists descended from on high and the sea; homes and people were burned by the wrath of Hamas. And all this took place on the day when Job’s children were celebrating together and their animals were peacefully grazing in the meadows.

One way of approaching evil is to try and understand it or to say it is “God’s will”:

Then Job arose, tore his robe, cut off his hair, and threw himself on the ground and worshiped. He said, “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the LORD has given, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” For all that, Job did not sin nor did he cast reproach on God.

Another way is to look at those who perpetrate evil and demonize the perpetrators—it’s them, not us. In other words, we project the evil that is around us to an “other”. We are good, they are bad. But what do you do when it is God? The word Devil, incorporates the word evil inside it. The one who Does evil is the D[oer of]evil. And when bad things happen to good people, we try to justify it and say maybe he should not have been there; or maybe she is responsible for what happened to her. Job’s so-called friends imply that he must have sinned and that’s why he is being punished. Or when Dinah “went out” to see the land in chapter 34 of Genesis, the sages imply she went out for bad purposes and thus got what she deserved. This week’s parshat Shemini, taking place on the Eighth Day, is a very problematic text and rabbinic interpretation does something similar in order to understand the inexplicable that happens to Aaron’s sons on the eighth day of the Consecration of the mishkan when the people were celebrating and reveling in the accomplishment of the new mishkan. Did they hear the swish of the fire which killed Aaron’s sons? Reading this, one thinks of the innocent people dancing at the Rave on the morning of October 7th totally wrapped up in the joy of the moment. And all this took place on Simchat Torah–Shemini Atzeret (also an eighth day) was a joyous time of celebrating, dancing with Torahs and starting the new cycle of reading the Torah.

LIMINALITY

The betwixt and between of finishing one thing and starting another is a space, a gap. This is the liminal space. When people leave their familiar space, bad things can happen to them. During the COVID period we were ordered to stay indoors, and if we went out we had to wear masks. It was dangerous to leave our homes. I mentioned Dinah who went out ותצא and got raped. Moses also “goes out” ויצא  and ends up killing the Egyptian who is beating an Israelite slave. So if our parsha were a movie, we would have background music indicating that anything taking place on the eighth day is a very problematic one:

On the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel. He said to Aaron: “Take a calf of the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering, without blemish, and bring them before God. …Then he slaughtered the burnt offering. … Aaron’s sons passed the blood to him—which he dashed against every side of the altar— … as Moses had commanded. Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he stepped down after offering the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the offering of well-being. Moses and Aaron then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of God appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from before God and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces (Leviticus 9: 1-24).

All of this precedes what will now happen. Although technically a new chapter begins, in the Torah there is no space between chapters 9 and 10. Is this deliberate? There is no liminality here—what happens next is not separate, it is part of the celebration:

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 God alien fire, which had not been enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from God and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of God. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what God meant by saying:
Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.” And Aaron was silent (Leviticus 10:1-3)..

There has been much commentary and questions about the inexplicable. What is the alien fire? What caused Nadav and Avihu to do what they did? What does in mean to die at the instance of God? How does God show himself to be holy, by killing those close to him? I’m not going to address most of these questions. I have written elsewhere about Aaron’s silence. It is possible that Nadav and Avihu were caught up in the moment and went one step further in the ecstatic worship that was going on and while “playing with fire” got burnt in the process. The first line commentary to what happened is in the bible itself which implies that the victims got what they deserved, for at the end of this story and its aftermath we read the following:

And God spoke to Aaron, saying: Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. This is a law for all time throughout the ages…(Leviticus 10: 8-11).

The implication is that this might have been a work accident; or that the sons were drunk and that is why they acted inappropriately. The midrash, however goes to the extreme of explaining the inexplicable by totally blaming Nadav and Avihu for what happened. It offers eight reasons: 1) Because they had drunk wine; 2) Because [while officiating] they lacked the prescribed number of garments; 3) Because they entered the Sanctuary without washing hands and feet; 4) Because they had no children; 5) they were arrogant. Many women remained unmarried waiting for them. 6) The sons of Aaron only died on account of their having given a legal decision in the presence of Moses their Master; 7) for not having taken counsel from each other. 8) And the eighth reason is the clincher:

Moses and Aaron were walking ahead, Nadav and Avihu were walking behind them, and all of Israel behind them. They were saying: ‘When will these two old men die, and we will assert authority over the public?’ Rabbi Yudan said in the name of Rabbi Aivu: They said it to one another with their mouths. Rabbi Pinḥas said: They contemplated it in their hearts. Rabbi Berekhya said: The Holy One blessed be He said to them: ‘“Do not glory in tomorrow” (Proverbs 27:1). Many young donkeys have died and their hides have been spread over their mothers.’ *Their hides have been turned into saddle packs and placed on their mothers. The point is that sometimes children die while their parents are still alive and active (Vayikra Rabbah 20).

There are those who would explain that it is Aaron who is being punished by God, because of his sin with the Golden Calf. But surely sons should not be punished for the sins of their fathers. Even in a well-known midrash about the sons’ mother, Elisheva, it is implied because of her vanity, her high position, that she had to be brought down to earth and suffer:

Elisheva bat Aminadav did not rejoice in the world when she saw five crowns [attained by her relatives] on one day. Her brother-in-law *Moses. was king, her brother, *Naḥshon. a prince, her husband, *Aaron. High Priest, her two sons, *Nadav and Avihu. the two deputy priests, her grandson Pinḥas anointed for war. When her sons entered to sacrifice and were burned, her joy was transformed into mourning. That is what is written: “After the death of the two sons of Aaron” (Vayikra Rabbah 20:2).

When modern women try to understand the texts, they do not demonize the sons: Ellen Frankel, uses the voice of Beruriah, whose sons were suddenly taken ill and died, to explicate her two “jewels” who were taken away:

BERURIAH THE SCHOLAR RECOUNTS: Like Elisheva, I also returned two sons to God. And like her, I never understood why they were taken from me. One shabbat when my husband, Meir, went to the study house, my boys were suddenly stricken with fever and died. When Meir returned, just before dark, I did not wish to disturb his Shabbat, so when he asked for the boys, I told him they were at play. After the havdalah ceremony that evening, I asked him: “Meir, I need your counsel. A man once lent me two jewels and now he has come to reclaim them. Must I give them back? “Of course,” Meir replied. “A pledge must be returned to its rightful owner.” Then I took him to the boys’ room where they lay lifeless on their beds. “God gives and God takes away,” I cried, my heart breaking. “Blessed be the name of God!” [Ellen Frankel, The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah (New York: Harper Collins, 1996): 159-161].

Note how she is channeling Job in her response, when she says “God gives and God takes away.” But she is also channeling Aaron who kept silent during his pain, because it was expected of him to have the show go on.

And here is how Sherri Mandell, a modern Israeli woman reacted to the unexplainable, horrific murder of her son, something which is even more poignant to us today:

“Contractions of Death” (Leviticus 10:1-3):

Mourning my son has similarities to labor. The contractions of pain rush through my body like a knot that is tied tighter and tighter so that I am unable to breathe, dead along with my son. My womb becomes a grave. I feel the pain of him in my belly, a pressure bearing down on me. It will always be inside of me. And though I hope and pray that one day I will not be as great with pain as I am now, the pain will never leave me.

I found this excerpt from in the “Voices” section on parshat shemini in The Torah. A Women’s Bible Commentary. And on the same page I found this poem by the German poet, Nelly Sachs (1891 – 1970) which I copied from the internet and with which I will end.

If only I knew,
what your last look rested on.
Was it a stone that had already drunk
many last looks, until they fell in blindness
on the blind?

Or was it dirt,
earth enough to fill a shoe,
and already turned black
from so many good-byes
and from causing so much death?

Or was it your last road,
That brought you the farewell from all roads
You had walked on?

A puddle, a piece of mirroring metal,
the belt buckle of your enemy, perhaps,
or any other small fortune-teller
of heaven?

Or did this Earth, that doesn’t allow
anyone to depart from here unloved
send a bird-sign through the air,
reminding your soul so that it flinched
in its body burned with anguish?

As someone pointed out this morning when I was teaching about this week’s parsha, I like to leave with unanswered questions–that is the meaning of the inexplicable!  Shabbat shalom.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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