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And Aaron was silent.
– Leviticus, 10:3
Leviticus continues in its pedantic tone, drily listing laws and observances, even as tragedy unfolds in the midst of rejoicing. We might try to imagine what the Torah would be like if we had only Leviticus, because it seems that may have been what God intended before we humans came on the scene with our freedom to choose, to act, to think for ourselves, and to disobey.
This week’s Torah portion marks the literal center of the Written Torah, a point emphasized by the rabbis. In Leviticus 10:16, the repeated word “inquire” straddles the exact midpoint of the word count of the Five Books. “Inquire,” says the Torah as it ends the first half, and “inquire,” opening the second half. Moses urgently inquires of Aaron’s sons (“Inquire… inquire…”) and learns they did not eat the sacrifices which they were explicitly commanded to eat as part of the inauguration of the Tabernacle.
The midpoint of the Torah’s letter count comes in the list of animals prohibited for consumption (Lev. 11:42) in an unusual word meaning “belly” – the same word used to curse the serpent (Gen. 3:14). Here at its center, the Torah reminds us that we were thrown out of Eden because we ate prohibited fruit. The Torah’s stories always hark back to the earliest pages of Creation.
Historically, there are three competing Jewish understandings of Creation. The first, probably the earliest historically, is now rejected as being “wrong” (in the twenty-first century we no longer call ideas “heretical”). This is the notion of an eternal God coexisting with eternal formless matter. Genesis shows God taking control over this primeval matter and forming the cosmos. Time and motion arise when undifferentiated matter takes form. Distinct forms occupy space and move toward or away from one another, and time measures the relationship of objects in motion.
The second trope is Creation ex nihilo – something out of nothing. It appears that this concept was first worked up into its most robust dogmatic form by the early fathers of the Christian church, then migrated (some would argue “returned”) into Jewish thought. It is quite a striking idea: God creates the cosmos and all of us out of nothing. Without God’s creative act, we would never come to be.
The third idea is that God is the only thing that actually exists, and that all Creation is part of God – in fact, is God – emanated through attenuating processes or “contractions” described by the kabbalists and embraced notably by the influential Chabad school of Hasidism.
Each Creation story implies a theory of evil. If God takes hold of primal matter and forms order out of chaos, then evil is chaos reasserting itself. If God creates the world from naught, then each created thing has its own independent existence; evil arises when the fundamental nature – the trajectory of needs, appetites, and free choice – of different elements of Creation come into conflict and seek to fulfill their own drives and desires, rather than hewing to the path laid out for them by God.
But if God creates everything out of God’s own self, then evil, too, arises organically from God’s own nature. Indeed, both good and evil co-inhabit the entire fabric of Creation. This kabbalistic approach speaks directly to the Torah’s fundamental paradox, which strikes us like a blow in the midst of this week’s reading: we are called to worship a God who creates both life and death. In a polytheistic system, one worships the gods who bring life, while appeasing or fleeing those who bring sickness, suffering, and death. But how are we to reconcile our religious devotion, our worship, and our gratitude with the knowledge that the same God who brings us to life will also kill us?
In Isaiah 45, the prophet addresses the Persian monarch Cyrus, whom God has designated as the instrument in human history through whom the Jews will return from the Babylonian captivity and rebuild Jerusalem. God tells Cyrus, “I have proclaimed you by name and knighted you, though you did not know Me…. I will gird you, though you did not know Me…I am God; there is no other. Who forms light and creates darkness, Who makes peace and creates evil; I, God, do all this.”
This text is so important that the rabbis of old incorporated it into the daily morning prayer, which opens with a slightly altered version: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who forms light and creates darkness; who makes peace and creates everything.” The rabbis hesitated to emphasize God’s role as creator of evil, but it is blatantly there. Isaiah contrasts the God of the Old Testament with the Zoroastrian religion of ancient Persia, which believed in one god who is wholly good, and who bestrides the universe as the battleground against the forces of an opposing god who is all evil. Isaiah puts before Cyrus the notion that one God, and one God only, creates everything. The implications were staggering in their time. They are no less so today.
As we strive to take our lead in life from the Bible, we receive a jolt in this week’s portion when, at the height of the inauguration ceremony in the Tabernacle, Aaron’s two older sons, Nadab and Abihu, are consumed by fire (10: 1-2).
Aaron has just completed the initial sacrifices under Moses’ guidance, when Nadab and Abihu spontaneously take their firepans – ritual incense burners – and offer “a foreign fire [one outside of the prescribed parameters of the sacred practice] which God had not command them. Then a fire went out from before God and consumed them, and they died in the Presence of God. Moses said to Aaron: This is that which God spoke of, saying ‘I will be sanctified by means of those close to Me, and I shall be honored before the entire people.’ And Aaron was silent” (10:1–3).
Aaron and his remaining sons must continue to officiate in the Tabernacle. They do not have the leisure to mourn, and contact with death will render them ritually impure. Moses rushes them through their steps, making sure they complete the ritual (10:12–20). Chapter 11 then seamlessly launches into detailed lists of animals, birds, fish, and insects: those permitted for human consumption, and those prohibited; and laws of ritual purity and impurity. This is jarring, though consistent with Leviticus as lawgiving over narrative. Moses’ abrupt dismissal of Aaron’s family tragedy mirrors the Torah’s own urgency to get on with the matter at hand. In a striking sense, this episode is precisely what the Torah is about: God is giving us laws. Occasionally, people do things they should not, whether out of ignorance or malice, or even out of spiritual elatedness, but ultimately God needs to get the message out. We deviate from God’s instructions at our peril – and we must carry on regardless.
What are we to make of God’s seeming wantonness, Moses’ impatience and urgency to get the job done, and Aaron’s acceptance of it all? How can we worship and serve a God who kills us? And yet, we do. The Torah’s Creation narrative blames the serpent, and Eve and Adam – like a master magician, the Torah’s misdirection lets God off the hook for the fact that we die. It is not until this week’s portion that the Torah admits that death also comes from God.
This Torah portion begs the existential question: Why do we yearn to have a relationship with a God who is so predictably unpredictable? So harsh and so arbitrary? Who gives us life, only to kill us off?
Is it fair for me to leave you with nothing but a question? With no “happy ending”? In a world ruled by death, religion – with all its problems – offers the hope of meaning. How pathetic must we humans be, to cling to that promise. This is the most existentially challenging passage in the Bible, yet the rabbis mainly deal with this by following the example of Moses and Aaron: the show must go on.
The hasidic rebbes make the radical suggestion that Nadab and Abihu knew what they were doing. That they desired the death of the body, in order to release their spirits to return to eternal communion with God. But this is the one wrong approach to serving God; our job is in this world. It is to serve God, through serving others. To bond with our community, to create a just society, and to relieve suffering.
The Torah comes clean in this reading: Yes, there is death in the world, and yes, God created it. Look not to your end, says the Torah, except insofar as it makes your life more urgent. Make the most of everything that comes before death. And consider that we do not mourn the eons elapsed before our birth. We care about death only because we are alive. And who ever hinted that life should last forever? Rather than dwelling on the certainty of death, we should dive with full enthusiasm into the challenge of being alive. God gives us life for free. God doesn’t owe us life. God doesn’t owe us anything.
We are put on this earth for a brief moment, each of us possessing infinite capacity. Our lives are measured by how much of our potential we realize, how much we help others to realize their own potential, by the compassion and the love and service we provide to others using our unique talents.
A man once said to me, “I don’t know much, but I do know that I will spend a lot more time dead than I will alive.” Nothing is more certain.
Yours for a better world.