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Parashat Shemini 5777 and Yom Hashoah

In our Parasha we have one of the strangest deaths of the Torah. We are told about Nadav and Abihu, the two eldest sons of Aaron, the High Priest, Moses’s brother. They approached the Sanctuary to offer a “strange fire”. As a result, both are burned by a fire that appears from the altar and they die “before Hashem”. Our rabbis have made several attempts for centuries to explain what was their sin and Nadav and Abihu have been charged with drunkenness, ambition, fanaticism, asceticism, treason, just to name a few of the charges. On the contrary, other commentators have preferred to see these two young men as positive figures and understand this strange fire as some kind of spiritual approach to Hashem, so intense that their souls just escaped their bodies and went up to meet with their Creator. It’s hard not to see in this story of death and burned bodies some connection with Yom Hashoah that we are marking tomorrow. For several years before making Aliyah, I used to teach in a seminar about the Shoah in the Jewish school of Santiago in Chile. My usual subject was “God and the Shoah” and, in the same way that Nadav and Abihu, the victims of the Shoah have been accused of the sin of secularism and/or the sin of Zionism, have been marked as being the price for the creation of the State of Israel, have been seen as living in an eclipse of God, among other things. Most of us feel uncomfortable with this idea of assigning guilt to the victims, as if justifying their suffering, but to be honest, there are also people among us that need the World to make sense. Need to find a sin if there is a punishment, need to believe in God’s justice and there cannot be an innocent person suffering without a reason. Together with a few other views, I would always teach in the seminar the answer of my rabbi in Chile to this terrible theological question and his answer matched exactly the reaction of Aaron in our Parasha: “Vaidom Aaron”. “And Aaron was silent”. Faced with the immensity of death and destruction, sometimes the most valid response is silence, humility and faith in God. It is hard to be silent, it is hard to accept, but sometimes we are too little to grasp and understand, too limited, too mortal. We just have to be in silence and then continue having faith that our God understands and that He/She is always with us. We have much to learn from Aaron.

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