Sh’mini, our portion for this Shabbat, has perplexed commentators for a very long time. Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Avihu, are killed suddenly as they offer a sacrifice. In Leviticus 10:1 we read this rather strange tale of these two sons who offer their sacrifice immediately after their dad had offered his. Many interpretations have tried to explain this sudden act. The text itself says that their offering was not asked for. Were they punished for acting on their own? Was the sacrificial system so intense and strict that any innovation would be met with death? Were they intoxicated and thus operating in a manner that was not condoned? Moses’s reaction seems to have been to affirm that one does things in a proper way and that to violate this was to court severe punishment (a theme in Torah). And Aaron’s reaction to this swift death of his sons was silence. (Leviticus 10.3)
I will leave the more ritualistic interpretations to this passage to others. For some reason, when looking at this passage this year, the one thing that jumped at me was the issue of the sudden act of the death of these two sons. And then Aaron’s silence. I could not help but think of the many times, as a rabbi, I have had to deal with congregants, friends and family who had received “that call” that told them all of a sudden, a loved one had died. And so often, the reaction was stunned silence, as if this was not happening, that this was dream and could not be true.
It is this sudden act that I think frightens us more than anything. It reminds us that we control so very little. It raises so many fears. How many times have we heard that phrase “it just isn’t fair” when confronting the issue of sudden death. We search for a reason because we need to try and understand “why”, when so often there is no real answer other than the mystery that we call life. Perhaps this can be seen as another way of Torah telling us to enjoy each day of life for we cannot control what will be tomorrow.
This is a strange story in this week’s passage. As I said, it raises so many questions and is open to so many possible meanings. This idea of how we react to the suddenness of life remains one of the great mysteries of living. Sometime, as with Aaron, silence is the best reaction.
Rabbi Richard F Address