April 25, 1998
Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)What goes around comes around. Fourteen years ago my daughter Julieanne, preparing for her Bat-Mitzvah, was stuck with this passage, and now by some strange twist of fate it's my turn. Leviticus 10 tells of the destruction of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu. It bothered us then and still does, though I feel comforted to learn that it has troubled the rabbis for some two thousand years.
Today's passage refers back to a promise in Exodus 29.
"For there I will meet with you, and there I will speak with you, and there I will meet with the Israelites, and it shall be sanctified by my Presence. I will sanctify the Tent of Meeting and the altar and I will consecrate Aaron and his sons to serve Me as priests I will abide among the Israelites, and I will be their God. And they shall know that I the Lord am their God, who brought them out from the land of Egypt that I might abide among them, I the Lord their God." (43-46)
The King is coming and you want to get your house in order.. Not only clean of dust but of sinful behavior or thought. Your home and soul should be as holy as his presence.
At first Aaron gets it right.
"Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he stepped down after offering the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the offering of well-being . . . and the presence of the Lord appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar, and all the people saw and shouted and fell on their faces." (Leviticus 9: 22-24)
But then his sons put in the wrong fire and they get whacked. "And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them" (!0:2) His fire outdoes their fire. In trying to make sense of this to my trusting daughter, we fixed on the phrase "alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them." The young fellows had not merely made a mistake but they had disobeyed God. They were in rebellion. Julieanne and I talked about the importance of obedience-to parents, teachers, God-she went off to write her Bat-Mitzvah speech and I went back to my Bears' game.
But it grated on me. Capital punishment for messing up a fire . . . Ground them for two weeks! No television for a month! Throw out the Nintendo! But burn them to death? It seemed like too much, even to the rabbis. I don't know how old Aaron's sons are, though they are old enough to have been consecrated as priests (Ex 28:21). But people make mistakes, the young especially like to try things their own way. Fire is fire. Why the fuss?
Obviously for our ancestors, fire was not just fire. There were strict procedures to separate the holy from the profane, and the consequences of mixing the two were catastrophic. For the many of us who delight in moo-shoo-pork or lobster tails, the story of Aaron's sons may be difficult to digest. Yet Julieanne and I came to an agreement that obedience means something-that we ought to honor our elders and revere God. We also were aware that blind obedience could be the most dangerous of traits.
What does it then mean to obey God as Abraham and Job do, and now Aaron does-he not only remains silent when God destroys his sons but later takes a measure of responsibility, He refuses to eat the sin offering on the ground that he is not in a blameless state: "See this day they brought their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, and such things have befallen me! Had I eaten sin offering today, would the Lord have approved?" (Lev. 10:21)
To obey God is obviously to obey his commandments but it cannot be only that. We know people who don't believe in God and are yet ethical human beings. On the other hand, few are more terrifying than religious fanatics.
For one, if our final allegiance is to God, we cannot put unquestioning faith in human beings and their institutions and governments. These are fallible or worse. We cannot worship the golden calves of wealth and power.
Ultimately to submit to God is too accept that life is strange and mysterious. Our knowledge and control are only partial, life is not fully in our hands, we must all die. I wish God had given Aaron's sons more time to learn that lesson. I'm still learning it.