These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[PEP Student] Consumed by the Fire?

Posted on March 27, 2011 by Tamara Frankel

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Dear Friends,

This past week’s parsha includes one of the few narratives in the book of Vayikra, namely the divinely ordained death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, upon presenting their voluntary fire offering. But the telling of the acts of Nadav and Avihu and their subsequent deaths are brief and perplexing. We do not have a clear sense of what Aaron’s sons did to deserve such a harsh and quick punishment. Naturally, the verses which describe this story are lush for rabbinic interpretation. Some identify the source of Nadav and Avihu’s misdeeds as egotism: Nadav and Avihu took their own fires and thought that they knew the best, most pleasing way to serve God. Others attribute their sin to inappropriate conduct in the Tabernacle: they were drunk or not dressed appropriately.

Last week I read an incredible interpretation from the Talmud — one that I had never heard before — to explain the acts of Nadav and Avihu. In Tractate Sanhedrin, which deals with setup and functions of a rabbinic court, the Talmud offers a much less literal interpretation of this story and claims that Nadav and Avihu suffered from spiritual zeal and ecstasy. They yearned for a deep and intimate connection with God and did whatever they could to achieve it. Consequently, God condemns them to a life of spiritual emptiness. So when the “fire came forth from God and consumed them”, God devoured their religious fervour. By the end of this episode, the Talmud posits that Nadav and Avihu were stripped of their passion and left to a live a life of physicality and normalcy. They were forced to maintain the status quo.

In thinking about last week’s jarring events in Israel, this drastic shift from passion to apathy and normalcy speaks to me. I have spent a large part of the last 18 months in Israel trying to re-define and deepen my connection to and understanding of the State and the Land of Israel. I have travelled many places and met different people and shared in their experiences, as well as my own, living in this beautiful and messy place. More than that, I have tried to bring my commitment to making Israel better, my love, my idealism and my openness to enable me to dream about what Israel could be.

But in the wake of this past week’s headlines, I wonder: thank God many of us survived these attacks physically, but what is left of our spirit? Will we fall into the abysmal end of despair and unrest and let this “fire consume us”? Will this event dim (or even erase) the light at end the of the tunnel?

For me, working with organizations like Encounter and meeting Palestinians has complicated my relationships in Israel. But most days I am grateful for that chaos because it allows me to engage in larger questions of what Israel’s goals and fundamental values are and how the Jewish State ought to be. More specifically, juggling and weaving my meetings with Palestinians and hearing their stories with my own narrative and those of Israelis has also revived my idealism because I am pushed to dream and to imagine what kind of Israel I want to see.

And yet, in light of last week’s events, I feel like I’m falling back into the trap of despair, fear and cynicism. I try to resist but it feels like the tide of anger and “He started it. No, she started it!” is overpowering me.

So I wonder: echoing the Talmud’s interpretation of Nadav and Avihu, will this past week’s events leave my body intact and consume my soul? Will the fire of the rockets in the Negev or the bomb beside the bus stop I frequent in Downtown Jerusalem devour my hope for a brighter future?

I hope not.
But I’m not so sure…

Shavua tov,