While our tradition may be filled with wonderfully unanswerable questions, our Torah is filled with unasked questions. What happened before God began creating? Why did the citizens of Babel wish to reach heaven with their tower? What was Isaac thinking as his father bound him for sacrifice? What did Moses’s and Pharoah’s relationship look like as children? So many questions left by our foundational narrative that generations upon generations have attempted to discover and to fill in the empty spaces they inhabit. These questions interest, excite, and frustrate us, and, I believe, they are a large part of the reason we continue to return to the stories in our Torah again and again.
This week, our portion, Sh’mini, is yet again filled with unasked questions. Nadav and Abihu, two of Aarons four sons, have just barely completed their training as Kohanim, priests tasked with the ritual communication with God and spiritual purity of the community. They come towards the altar, fire pan in hand, to make an offering. But something seems to be off, as their gift is described as an aish zarah, a strange fire. It seems, though, that the strangeness is too much to overcome, and God sends a consuming fire against them, swiftly ending Nadav and Abihu’s stories and lives. Compounding the strangeness, Moses instructs Aaron to remain silent in his grief, keeping whatever questions he might have silent as well.
I think, similar to the Torah, when we are approached by the strange, unfamiliar, or unexpected, we find ourselves with questions that never quite fall off the tip of our tongues. We acknowledge that something may be outside of our norm, but fill ill-equipped to encounter it, and therefor push it away. We take such comfort in the familiar that the unfamiliar becomes uninvited. Imagine what our media choices might be if we sought out a variety of opinions and engaged each with kind curiosity. What might our social circles inspire in our world views if they were even the slightest bit more diverse? How might our Jewish practice and community continue the millennia old tradition of adaptation and experimentation if the various ways that people bring their multifaceted passions closer and closer?
Truly, “strange fires” may be uncomfortable, but I believe that they are also essential.
This week I spent time at OSRUI camp in Oconomowoc, WI working with the segel (faculty) and staff to help prepare for the summer. We spoke of culture, experience, and the frames our Jewish sensibilities give to support healthy, constructive, and memorable community. One such sensibility, Eilu v’Eilu, speaks to Nadav and Abihu’s predicament as well as our own. Essentially, Eilu v’Eilu translates to “this and this [are words of Torah]” and is a phrase used to describe the validity of multiple simultaneous truths. “Comfort at home” and “Physical presence in community” is only one of the Eilu v’Eilu style challenges our community is facing lately. “Reentering the world after seclusion” and “The world is on a dangerous precipice” is another. Neither of these challenges is easy, but both (indeed all Eilu v’Eilu challenges) are key to vocalizing our unasked questions. Regardless of what response Aaron have received if he asked his brother or God to explain his sons’ deaths, he might have benefited from the asking. Regardless of what we might encounter, approaching the strange fire of our discomfort gives us glimpses into the other forms torah and wisdom might take. Eilu v’Eilu, our Torah and the torah that we don’t know or agree with are both indeed Torah, and we are privileged and obligated to study them both.