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Shemini 5782 ~ March 25

There is a moment in how our Torah reading for this Shabbat examines a true tragedy that may seem to be offensive.  Two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, have died by a strange fire as they enter the Tent of Meeting.  All too often we hear the words of the Torah, “bekrovai ekadesh,” which may be translated as “I am sanctified by those closest to me.” The statement goes on that God will thus “gain glory before all the people.” We can either read this statement as a lesson that teaches us that man needs to be humbled by tragic moments in our world’s history, or that once one understands, one understands God’s presence and how we can find comfort in turning to God.

Senator Cory Booker understood this concept this past Wednesday when he turned to Supreme Court Justice nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson after some grueling, and perhaps racist and offensive, questioning and stated:

"You faced insults here that were shocking to me," Booker said, speaking directly to Jackson, who is nominated to become the first Black woman on the high court.

"Nobody's taking this away from me," Booker continued, choking up as he spoke. Republicans are "gonna accuse you of this and that. But don't worry, my sister. Don't worry. God has got you. And how do I know that? Because you're here, and I know what it's taken for you to sit in that seat." (Associated Press).

Whether we agree that Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson should rightfully be nominated, we certainly must question the voracity of the questioning that at times goes beyond what is reasonable and what the one who is posing the questions might not have asked if the role was reversed.

Likewise, we question, why does God need tragedy for people to recognize Hashem’s holiness? Are there not enough spiritual moments in our personal, communal and world experiences and expressions that are positive?

Clearly the humbling experience of calamities is something that we, as a Jewish people, understand probably better than any religious group or society in the existence of our world all the way back from the time of Abraham, and not simply from the time of the slavery in Egypt. It is an expression that has been uttered for so many hideous crimes against humanity directed against Jews. And the answer “bekrovai ekadesh” is one that stops us in our tracks and, as modern thinkers, we might object at what appears to be a callous answer.

Then I begin to think about other statements in Jewish tradition that we utter that may have a similar ideology and which we deem acceptable. For example, upon learning of the death of any human being, our tradition teaches us to respond: Baruch Dayan Ha-Emet,  “Blessed is the Judge of Truth.”

Then again, it also depends how we translate the term. It can either imply that God is the one who determines our time to live and time to die and, in that regard, we accept the truths of God’s world, both in life and in death. It may also reference that God, as the true Judge in the Heavenly Court, will judge that soul and we pray that God judges with ha-emet, the trust and truth that we have in God.

Aaron responded to the words “bekrovai ekadesh” as we most probably do. The Torah states he remained silent. Could it be in disbelief in the words themselves? Or might it be that he understood more than we understand?

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, may his memory be a blessing, wrote a while back something that might help us to understand the tragedy that is currently unfolding in Ukraine:

“When we confuse G-d's will with our will, we turn the holy -- the source of life -- into something unholy and a source of death. The classic example of this is "holy war," jihad, Crusade -- investing imperialism (the desire to rule over other people) with the cloak of sanctity as if conquest and forced conversion were G-d's will.

The story of Nadav and Avihu reminds us yet again of the warning first spelled out in the days of Cain and Abel. The first act of worship led to the first murder. Like nuclear fission, worship generates power, which can be benign but can also be profoundly dangerous.”

At this moment, perhaps the response of Aaron might be the best. As the Torah states, “vayidom Aharon,” Aaron “remained silent” or perhaps “his heart stopped beating for a brief moment” as he took in what the words truly meant. Or maybe “Aaron stood in and at attention” with a great understanding beyond words.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi K

Sat, June 25 2022 26 Sivan 5782