Now Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his censer, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered unholy fire before the LORD, such as he had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the LORD meant when he said,
“Through those who are near me
I will show myself holy,
and before all the people
I will be glorified.” ’
And Aaron was silent.Leviticus 10:1-3
Today is Yom Ha’Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day and the Torah portion for this week, Leviticus 9:1-11:47 is both troubling and strangely, painfully, relevant. It begins with instructions to the priests on how to offer animal sacrifices, and then it tells how Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron are consumed because they “offered unholy fire before the LORD.” And as if the pain of that were not enough, the young men are buried outside of the camp, and Aaron and his family are instructed not to engage in the outward signs of mourning, although they are assured that others in the community will mourn their loss.
In her Torah commentary in the Huffington Post, Judith Rosenbaum writes, “I picture this family holed up in the Mishkan, the portable Temple of the desert, afraid to move for fear of breaking down or of eliciting more dangerous fire, but filled to overflowing with rending grief. The text does not detail the mourning of the community beyond saying that they will cry (Leviticus 10:6), but I cannot imagine that even the loudest communal wailing could give appropriate voice to the personal grief of Aaron and his family.”
The story should not be taken to mean that mistakes in the ritual are punishable by death. And it is interesting to note that the text does not say that God commanded the fire to consume them, only that it did so. It is Moses, not the Lord, who says that this fulfills some previous statement by God. This is a story that raises more questions than it answers.
Aaron’s sons are named, and even casual Bible readers can feel a connection. Nadab and Abihu were the nephews of Moses and Miriam. On Holocaust Remembrance Day, when we contemplate the deaths of millions whose names we do not know, the death of Aaron’s sons reminds us that each one had a family and each one had a personal story before everything personal was lost in a flood of terror.
One of the questions raised by the story is about the nature of public mourning and grief. The people of Israel were unsure of how they should mourn for Aaron’s sons, and there has been a history of uncertainty about how to mourn appropriately for those lost in the Holocaust. The original Israeli plan was to make the remembrance on the same day at the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which began on April 19, 1943. This would celebrate resistance and mourn the deaths at the same time. As if somehow that would make it more comprehensible. Or perhaps because it is easier to mourn for those who resisted. Wisely, in the end, the date was tied to two other dates, Israeli Independence Day and Memorial Day. This year it falls on the anniversary of the uprising, but that is not always the case.
Listening to the news this morning, I heard that in Israel the remembrance would be marked by two minutes of silence. It sounded so small.
But then I read what actually happened. At 10:00 a.m. this morning all across the country, millions of Israelis were silent, and traffic stopped in the streets, and sirens wailed for two minutes. It is a remembrance that should wail inside of us like a siren.