"The Two Priests Are Destroyed" by James Tissot, ca. 1900, shows Nadav and Avihu being struck down in this week's Torah portion, Shemini.
"The Two Priests Are Destroyed" by James Tissot, ca. 1900, shows Nadav and Avihu being struck down in this week's Torah portion, Shemini.

In a crisis, we can only control how we choose to respond

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Leviticus 9:1–11:47

The stage is set, the musicians are in place, the actors are standing by and the audience members (who have built the set and designed the costumes) are waiting expectantly. In the hushed arena, the director signals to the conductor, who raises his hands in grand fashion, and the show begins.

Among the most dramatic and memorable scenes in the Tanakh is Leviticus 9. After nearly seven Torah portions of preparation, during which time the Israelites learned how to build the Tabernacle and then actually built it, and how the priests were to offer sacrifices and receive ordination, the day has finally arrived to make it all official.

The priestly family emerges from seclusion after seven days (Shemini means eighth, as in the eighth day when the ceremony took place), and Aaron and Moses bless the people. Aaron is on top of the world, and with Moses’ coordination, everything seems to be going swimmingly.

But at the height of the moment, tragedy strikes.

Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s oldest sons, bring a “strange fire” to the Altar and die, consumed by the Divine blaze which only moments before had received the first formal offerings before the people, “who saw and sang glad song and fell upon their faces” (Leviticus 9:24). One can only imagine, particularly because the Torah doesn’t tell us, what the response of the enormous and enthralled crowd must have been. Was this part of the show? Could they believe their eyes?

In fact, this was no special effect. For reasons we will never understand or be able to explain (though we’ve tried mightily for centuries), Aaron’s sons die in full view of the assembly, at the apex of what should have been their family’s finest hour. It’s a stunning, shocking turn of events. But in the responses of Moses and Aaron, the leaders who are closest to and most affected by the calamity, is a transformative display of how to react when the world turns upside-down.

Moses speaks immediately of the deep portent of the moment, saying cryptically, “Of this did the Eternal speak, saying: I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me, thus I will be honored before the entire people,’ and Aaron was silent” (Leviticus 10:3).

As Aaron is temporarily stricken mute, Moses springs into further action, directing family members to remove the bodies and giving explicit instructions to the next-in-line younger sons of Aaron to carry on with their sacred, very public duties. They are told to eschew even the outer markings of mourning — unshaved heads and torn garments — and attend to the minutiae of the sacrifices as ordered. His focus seems extreme, even severe, but appears calculated to maintain composure before the fragile multitudes. One assumes, or hopes, that the family mourned for Nadav and Avihu in private, and in due time.

Moses and Aaron behave in polar opposite ways, and yet both responses feel absolutely necessary.

In times of upheaval and catastrophe, there is equally a need for bold, decisive action and for reverential silence. What is not on display in this heartbreaking scene is finger-pointing, blame or denial. Perhaps such conduct wouldn’t have been surprising, but the Torah chooses another path.

One way to read Moses’ initial response is to hear a reminder to the priestly family that theirs is an extremely high calling, and that in their unity and fortitude, they can still be conduits for the Divine Presence, even in the face of inexplicable loss.

And in Aaron’s thunderous silence, we are reminded that despite extensive planning and preparation, we are never in full control of our destiny. How we choose to respond may be the only thing within our command. And one way to respond to unspeakable events is to refrain from speaking for a while.

I can’t help but receive this story now with the attunement and sensitivity that this last year has forced upon us.

So many plans had been made before Covid-19 became our reality — weddings, graduations, vacations, bar and bat mitzvah parties, every kind of new beginning and chapter ending for every single life on our planet. Yet even with the noblest intentions and most careful attention to detail, the world turned upside-down.

More than a year since the pandemic began, we might well ask: Who has inspired us with their response to this global tragedy? Who let us down or led us astray? How did we respond? Were we like Moses, jumping into action and pivoting into the unexpected? Did we, like Aaron, take any long moments of silence to just contemplate and be with, and within, this calamity?

The tragic demise of Aaron’s sons — for whatever mysterious reasons, at the pinnacle of this sacred story — offers a wrenching but remarkable lesson. We should make our plans and hope for the best. We must dream our dreams and follow instructions for success as well as we can.

But if, and when, our stories take sharp turns away from the expected, dwelling on the why of it all may not be productive or ever answerable. Instead, we’ll need both swift adjustment and awed reflection to meet the moment. May we do so with strength and faith.

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at [email protected].