The World Between Order and Chaos.
Thoughts on Parasha Shemini.
In this week’s Torah portion (Leviticus/Vajikra 9:1-11:47) Aaron and his sons begin to fulfill the duties of kohanim (priests). God sends a fire which consumes the sacrifices on the altar; thereby the Divine presence begins to live in the Tent of Meeting, in Hebrew also called the Mishkan.
Moses and Aaron then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of the [Eternal] appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from before the [Eternal] and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces.
However, soon after that moment, after a time of great joy and euphoria, a tragedy takes place:
Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the [Eternal] alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the [Eternal] and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the [Eternal]. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the [Eternal] meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.” And Aaron was silent.
The above mentioned events have drawn the attention of many commentators and often times they posed a challenge for theologians. Quite a lot has been written on this topic, but this is not what I’d like to focus on here; I’d rather focus on the sheer chronology of the events: a moment of euphoria, happiness, joy, and then suddenly a tragedy.
Sounds familiar? Of course, perhaps even too familiar; probably almost every one of us could recall a similar turn of events, about which they have either heard about or directly witnessed it themselves. In the latter case we often remember such events until the end of our lives; such experiences are often traumatic and they leave us with a number of dramatic questions, such as: could this have been prevented, what was really the cause of this tragedy, why did it have to happen and so on.
One mistake, one moment of inattention can lead to a catastrophe. Could we organize the world in such a way as to ensure that such situations never take place? In my opinion this is a utopian idea, first of all because as human beings we do not have the necessary means nor minds to rule over the entire reality which surrounds us. Therefore the best thing is to be aware of this and accept our own limitations. The world is still too large and too complex and we still don’t know enough about the processes which occur in it, although of course we know much more than our grandparents and great-grandparents. And while we should pay special attention to ensuring our safety, we must make sure we do it in an appropriate way.
The need for safety is one of the most fundamental and biological of human needs, along with others such as the need for nutrition, procreation etc. However, concern about safety, especially when it comes to our close ones, can easily turn into patronizing, which could potentially be even more dangerous for the people for whose safety we are concerned, such as our children. Why? Because if we arrange for someone to live in permanent comfort, they will never learn how to keep themselves safe on their own. That’s why as we bring up our children we should not strive to keep them safe at all cost and in all circumstances – and many experts in the field of psychology and pedagogy would agree with me here – but instead we should teach them how to ensure their own safety and how to be cautious in their everyday conduct and in their lives in general. Therefore we should gradually, in a way that’s suitable for their age, expose them to the real world, with all the problems, difficulties, failures or pain it entails. Otherwise, if we decide to keep them in a “safety bubble”, after a while reality will ruthlessly correct our mistakes and teach our children a lesson, sometimes in a very brutal way. Being overly cautious about someone else’s safety infantilizes them and as a result of it people never grow up and avoid taking responsibility for themselves, not to mention taking responsibility for others. A world in which humanity would consist of only such individuals would be one possible version of hell on earth.
And while there is nothing fundamentally wrong in wanting to control the world which surrounds us (provided that our rule does not entail brutal or even senseless exploitation) and this is in fact necessary for our survival, we must nevertheless renounce the idea that we could ever have control over everything. No, that is impossible, and that’s why we have to learn how to distinguish between that which we can control and those things over which we have no control and which perhaps we will never be able to control. Just like it’s not possible to “take care of” and fully fulfill our need for safety (or any other of our needs) once and for all. Chaos will always burst into our orderly surroundings, regardless of whether it’s an order that we established ourselves or a natural one. And there is nothing we can do about it, since that is simply the nature of the world that we live in, to put it in very traditional terms. So what can we do about it?
The answer is: We can try to live in a reasonable way. What does this mean? It means to continuously deal with that chaos, to live in opposition to it and at the same time to try to organize that chaos, both in our external and internal life. With regards to this second aspect, and to a certain extent also the first one, the system which is best suited to fight with chaos is, I dare say, our religion – Judaism. If we live according to its rules, then almost every aspect of our life becomes meaningful and well-organized. Of course there are practical matters which extend beyond our religious life, but also in this case a reasonable way of organizing them is necessary, and here the wisdom of our tradition can also lend us a hand, since Judaism teaches how to live according to rules and in moderation, with a permanently implemented, regular obligation to rest, which in the longer run protects human life, since it is subordinated to it. In order to save a life on Shabbat one is allowed to break all of its rules and essentially to do everything except for that which we know will lead us to worship idols, to prohibited sexual relations or to bloodshed.
People who have a goal in their lives and who follow a regular schedule are statistically less prone to depression, addictions and other destructive tendencies. So, we should set goals, follow a regular schedule (with regards to meal times, sleep, work, study, entertainment etc.) and have a well-ordered personal life. For some people this could already be a goal in and of itself. Only then will we be able to plan and achieve all that which we want to achieve. Are we going to face failures? Of course, they will always happen from time to time, but we must simply come to terms with them and get on with our lives. It’s very possible that already the next day we will discover their meaning and significance, thanks to which we will for example discover and implement in our lives certain rules which will help us avoid potentially even much greater misfortunes in the future.
Of course there is still the question of the role of spontaneity in our lives – and indeed there is room for it as well. A conflict between our plans and our life as it is here and now is something that we’ve all experienced many times. This being said, there is nothing bad or stupid in planning and this statement absolutely does not contradict the old, funny Yiddish saying: Der Mentsh tracht un Got lacht – humans plan and God laughs – which is first of all an expression of an ability to laugh at oneself and a healthy reaction to our own failures. Having too many plans and goals also doesn’t have to be stupid at all. The more of them we have, the more of them we carry out (provided that we do not simply have millions of ideas per minute or that for example we don’t have a certain constant, pathological element in our lives which thwarts everything, such as for example an addiction, although fighting with an addiction also entails implementing order in our life or expanding its extent). We will carry out more, though of course we will never carry out all of our plans, but this often turns out not to be a serious problem in the long term. And the same could be said about the commandments and rules in our religion: the more of them we honestly decide to fulfill, the more of them we will actually fulfill and as a result our life will change for the better. That’s why the allegedly “common sense” tendency to reduce the number of rules in our lives is actually not good for us – the less rules and principles we respect in theory, the less of them we fulfill in practice, and then our life can slowly start to drift towards chaos, although this can end up affecting especially the lives of our children.
This could be one of the answers to the question why Judaism entails so many commandments, rules and norms, regarding essentially everything. This is presumably also one of the answers to the question why as a community with a continuous identity and tradition we’ve been able to survive for already over 3 millennia, whereas many other nations and religious groups simply ceased to exist.
A life which is purposeful, meaningful and filled with responsibility is not some kind of pie in the sky made up by “religious lunatics”, as some, allegedly rational, modernist and postmodernist “sages” would want it. What’s the point of doing anything, since in a million years we won’t be here anyways – this argument is simply a trick played by the nihilistic mind. Yes, our mind is capable of this and we can always imagine a certain time perspective in which none of our actions will make any sense. And it doesn’t even have to be a time-frame of a thousand or million years – a hundred is enough. However, such reasoning is a logical-metaphysical trap, and the stance that stems from it amounts to simply giving up the fight with chaos, the fight for life, to losing it by default. There is nothing lofty about this, nothing valuable, nothing worth emulating and finally – nothing wise.
If we renounce the belief in the meaningfulness and purposefulness of human life, then nihilism, chaos, and ultimately destruction creep in. The notion of meaning and the purposefulness of human life, in any shape and form – be it religious, lay, collective or individual, is not something “irrational” – on the contrary – it is the highest form of human rationality.
Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka
 According to some linguists the Polish word “mieszkać” (to reside somewhere) comes exactly from the Hebrew mishkan.