We cant understand, we can only question

Leviticus 9:1-11:47
II Samuel 6:1-7:17

“Now Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took a fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord strange fire, which God had not commanded them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; so they died before the Lord” (Leviticus 10:1-2).

It is a frightening place, this biblical universe, where a single false step leads to catastrophe, a mistaken impulse cuts off your life in an instant. Nadav and Avihu, incinerated before the sanctuary, destroyed at a moment of supreme rejoicing as the Tabernacle is dedicated.

Why this harsh and vicious punishment from a God described just a few chapters ago as “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness” (Exodus 34:6)? Why are there no warnings, no second chances? Why are well-intentioned mistakes met with instantaneous execution?

Traditional commentaries catalogue the sins of Nadav and Avihu; thus, they justify the punishment meted out by God. But no explanations diminish the shock of their deaths. And no rationalizations blunt the theological message we receive from this tale: God is watchful, and woe to us if we stumble.

There is another way to read this story, however. And that is to see that the real fire from heaven — the white-hot insight that blazes out from the text — is that we live in a world in which people are alive one instant and dead the next. Happiness spins around in a flash and plummets into catastrophe. A bomber blows up a Jerusalem coffee shop, killing a father and daughter on the night before her wedding. A little boy is crushed on the railroad tracks in San Jose. A tornado in Tennessee rips apart a home, killing a young husband and wife and their two young children.

Beneath the story of Nadav and Avihu there bubbles up a kind of feverish anxiety — an urge to make sense of deaths that are sudden, tragic and unfathomable. If young men are struck down, all at once, then we must see manifest here the hand of God. There must be sin, there must be punishment, there must be justice — however enigmatic. The universe, though frightening and unpredictable, must at least be coherent.

What, after all, is the alternative? Only to say that dreadful, inexplicable things happen by chance, that the course of our lives is shaped by random, arbitrary events — strokes of luck and twists of fate.

Questions bubble up from the stories we read, and the stories we tell, this week of Yom HaShoah. A woman is saved from the gas chamber because she stepped out of line; a man is shot down for the same thing. Nothing governs their fates except the whims of those who hold the guns. There is so much fire, there is so much blood, and so little that makes sense.

This week’s portion marks the very center of the Torah. And according to one opinion, the exact midpoint falls between two words in Leviticus 10:16: “Darosh darash — Moses inquired deeply.”

Said Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum of Galicia: “This teaches us that with all of Moses’ probing study, after having received the entire Torah from the mouth of God, he was still only halfway along the path. And thus we learn: a truly wise person knows that no matter how much he has studied, he has grasped nothing, he has learned nothing.”

And we know, perhaps, why Aaron was silent when his two sons lay dead on the ground — and why, after reading and listening to tales of the Shoah, sooner or later we fall into silence. It is because we come to feel after a while that we have grasped nothing, that we know nothing, that we understand nothing of the nightmarish fire from heaven that consumed the 6 million.

We are only half a century away from the nightmare; we are only halfway along the path. And so we don’t know the true lessons of the Shoah yet — whether they are lessons about chaos or coherence in the universe, about the diaspora and Zionism, about the mystery of evil or the mystery of goodness.

Someday, perhaps, the stories of the Shoah will be as thickly embroidered with commentary as the story of Nadav and Avihu. And maybe then we will make some sense out of all the blood and all the fire.

Until then, we move between speech and silence. We ask for strength to listen to stories at this painful season — and to inquire deeply into their message for our own time. And since we live in a world where death strikes without reason and God’s justice is problematic, we ask, above all, for the strength to do justice with our own hands.

Rabbi Janet Marder is the spiritual leader at Reform Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.