The book When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Rabbi Harold Kushner is the world’s #2 bestselling book on religion, second only to the Bible. There’s a reason for that.
Why do bad things happen to good people? This is the existential human question, one that we will never answer, but one that many of us will spend at least some time pondering. Perhaps you have a memory of debating this question during a late-night philosophical chat in a college dorm room, or asking it aloud in the face of personal tragedy. Perhaps you have had a child come to you with this question, who walked away confused when no adult could give them a definitive answer. During this worldwide pandemic, I imagine that this question is alive and fresh in many of our minds. It certainly is in mine.
In this week’s Torah portion, parashat Shmini, we learn about a mysterious and tragic death. Aaron’s two sons, who have just been given clear instructions for how to carry out their duties as Israelite priests, offer an esh zarah, or “alien fire” to God. We don’t know what this alien fire is or why they offered it. Perhaps they were rebels who wanted to see what happened if they broke the rules of the sacrificial system. Perhaps, as some medieval commentators suggest, they were inebriated and confused as to which sacrifice to offer. Perhaps they wanted to go above and beyond their duties and offer an extra gift to God.
While we don’t know the motivation behind this strange offering, we do know the tragic fate of these two sons of Aaron. The Torah tells us: “A fire came forth from Adonai and consumed them; thus they died at the hand of Adonai.” Aaron, who held a deep and sacred connection with God, had to witness the deaths of two sons at God’s command.
Moses immediately tries to make sense out of this tragedy. Though his comment to Aaron is cryptically worded, the message is clear: “God sacrificed your children to teach the Israelites an important lesson.” Moses gained his own sense of comfort by attributing reason and logic to the tragedy.
Aaron, rather famously, responds very differently. Instead of fighting with his brother, Moses, instead of finding his own explanation for why God killed his sons, Aaron remains silent.
Even in these two verses, we see that two of the great luminaries of our tradition respond very differently to tragedy. This is reflective of a larger theme in Jewish tradition: Judaism never gives a brief, systematic answer to a large, unwieldy question. Instead, we can think of Jewish tradition as a library containing infinite answers to the impossible-to-answer questions.
Right now, as we face our own global tragedy, our sacred texts and traditions provide us with different ways of coping and responding. The biblical Book of Job, for example, teaches us that we can never know the secrets of the universe, and that God’s actions in the world will always remain completely mysterious. On the other hand, the biblical Book of Esther, in which God’s name never appears, teaches us that we can’t rely on the Divine to change or even to understand the challenges of our world. And the apocalyptic Book of Daniel teaches us that if we just wait patiently and act piously, God will send a savior who will transform our sorrow into joy and perfect our world. Three books in our Bible with three radically different approaches to the world.
As we mourn the deaths of so many people we love, as we pray for the recovery of people who are gravely ill, and as we take care of our families and ourselves, we can know that however we choose to understand the meaning of this tragic time, Judaism tells us that there is no wrong answer. Whether we want to scream, explain, or remain silent, we have the wisdom and power of our tradition behind us. Judaism contains all of our responses and more.
The one thing that all of these biblical examples teaches is that tragedy is easier to bear when we come together. Though we can’t be together in person, we at JCP are committed to making sure that our community comes together virtually. I hope you’ll join me on Instagram live tonight at 6 pm (@jcpdowntown) to bring in Shabbat.
No matter why you think this is happening, or the lessons and meaning you take from it, one thing is for sure — we will get through it together.