Shimini - Strangers

by Rabbi Alexis Roberts

The word "Holocaust" comes from root words meaning "entirely" ("holo-") "burned" ("caust"), completely consumed in fire. Before World War Two, the word was commonly used as a way to describe certain ancient sacrifices detailed in Leviticus. Some were partially burned up and the rest of the animal was eaten, but some were "holocausts," entirely consumed by fire and in that way, entirely given to God.

In this week's portion, we see a dramatic contrast in two offerings that Are both entirely burned. First, Aaron complies in explicit detail with what has been commanded for the priests to prepare the first sacrifices. The people are blessed for this effort, and then "Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering." (Lev 9:24). The people are struck with fear/awe, shout in response, and bow down.

And then, in a famously mysterious passage, Aaron's sons Nadav (which means "gift" or "donation") and Abihu (meaning "He is my Father") bring an uncommanded offering of incense. "And fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before God." In response, Aaron is silent.

The language about God's consuming fire is identical in both cases. Yet one seems to be a success, and the other a terrifying failure. The intriguing question is that, assuming that Nadav and Abihu did wrong, what was their crime? Most commentators see this as a death sentence, and look for the crime that justifies it. Were they defiant? jealous? ambitious? drunk? Arguments can be made for any of these. But none of them are capital offenses. A few suggest they were not wrongdoers; but rather that in their eager willingness to serve, they disregarded laws that would have protected them from the fiery Presence of God, and gave themselves as unintended human sacrifices. In this case, God's fire would represent acceptance of the gift.

Throughout the Torah, God's presence is described as or accompanied by fire. Many have taught that all the regulations regarding the careful procedures for sacrifices and for ritual purity among the ancient priests come from an understanding of God as so holy as to be extremely dangerous to the non-holy; which is most everyone most of the time. If ritual laws are not precisely complied with, God's presence can be very dangerous. This is far from our contemporary experience of God, but perhaps not as far as we think.

Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, (Tuesday, April 9 2002). We gather to mourn and remember, and try to understand why such a calamity befell our people. Six million of our people were cut down before it was over, and many of them were burned in fire. There is no way to overstate the impact of this loss on contemporary Judaism, and to a lesser extent, on the entire world. The extent of the damage becomes even more clear when we remember that in the 1940's, the greatest rabbis and scholars lived mostly in Europe.

While a third of the Jews in the world were killed, more like 80 percent of our teachers were silenced in fire. Those of us who have complained that much of the Judaism they have been exposed to seemed to lack inspiration or true spiritual connection must bear this in mind. We lost our teachers, and thus profoundly lost our way. We are growing back, like the little shoots of new trees after a forest fire, but we almost had to begin anew in many ways.

Aaron was silent in response to the death of his sons. I imagine he was torn between his extraordinary personal grief at the loss of his children, and his utter perplexity at God's behavior. In this story, there is no possibility of asking "Is there a God who would do such a thing to innocent people?" In this story, it is God who does it. And we are left to ponder.

It is too easy to think Nadav and Abihu deserved to die. This was not simple justice, but something far more mysterious. Sometimes inexplicably violent fire breaks forth and destroys what we hold precious, for no reason we can ever understand. It is useless to indict God, or to imagine God is so limited as to be incapable of such action. Many lost their faith in response to the Holocaust, and who can blame them? But nowhere are we promised that we will not suffer, or that we will be given to know what God is doing and why. We are only told to do all we can to hear and respond to God's teachings about how to live lives of blessing and peace.

The fact that something hurts and confuses us does not mean there is no God and no justice. It just means we are hurt and confused. We have the choice to become bitter and blaming, or to keep asking how God would want us to respond, and try to gather the courage and willingness to live like that. In the long run, it is important to remember that the Holocaust was ended by a massive world effort. It has become the symbol of what can happen when race hatred is let loose. It has fueled an enormous outpouring of Jewish compassion toward others who suffer from race hatred, and a deep renewal of our ancient commitment to never be silent when anyone is suffering persecution.

In Israel, some of the voices that consistently speak for peace and acknowledgement of the rights of all people are in fact Holocaust victims, or those who have lost their children to the current violence. And of course, some of the people most willing to kill and brutalize are Holocaust victims.

In this way, the Holocaust is a major factor in the background in Israel today. The Holocaust is in many ways so big as to be imponderable. But as we cherish the story of each Survivor's experience, we hear messages of humanity in the face of brutality, and of holiness even in places of desecration. The mystery of what it all means is only revealed to each individual, and then often only incompletely. What it means to Elie Wiesel is different than what it meant to Victor Frankl, although both were transformed and made holy through their experience. Maybe, like Aaron, we are wise to keep silence and continue in holy service as much as we are able.

The biggest message for me is told beautifully by Rachel Naomi Remen in her lovely book, Kitchen Table Wisdom. She describes a Holocaust Survivor at a retreat for cancer patients, where the participants were being encouraged to hug each other. This made the older German Jewish gentleman uncomfortable. He found a moment to ask in prayer, "God, is it alright to love strangers?" And the answer he felt he heard was, "I didn't make strangers. You made strangers." For me the Holocaust is a bitter reminder of what can happen when we make strangers, and forget about the essential holiness of every living thing.