Things we deserved and things we didn’t deserve

Thoughts on parashat Shemini

Menachem Mirski 

Does everything (bad) that happens to us happen for a reason? If so, where should we look for answers? In theology, science or our moral conduct as individuals or groups? The Torah portion for this week brings up this topic. On the eighth day, following the seven days of their inauguration, Aaron and his sons begin to officiate as kohanim (priests); a fire comes down from God to consume the offerings on the altar, and the divine presence comes to dwell in the Sanctuary. Aaron’s two elder sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer a “foreign fire before God” and die before God. Aaron is silent in face of this tragedy. Moses and Aaron subsequently disagree as to a point of law regarding the offerings, but Moses concedes to Aaron that Aaron is in the right.

The reason that Nadav and Avihu died is mentioned in theTorah:

And the sons of Aharon took each his censer, and they put in them incense. And they offered before יהוה foreign fire which He had not commanded them.

(Leviticus 10:1)

Yet the Sages and the midrashim give numerous reasons and explanations as to what their sin was and why they died. Some commentators praise Aharon’s sons and consider them as exceptional people: the sons meant what they did for the best and did more than they were commanded. But they were punished because no man has the right to do more or less in the Divine service than he was commanded. Other commentators find serious faults in the actions of Aharon’s sons. Some claim that they showed disrespect for the Mishkan and the Divine service, for example, that they entered the Mishkan wearing the robes of a regular Kohen rather than those of a Kohen Gadol; they had previously imbibed wine; they offered a sacrifice which they had not been commanded to bring. There are also commentators who accuse them of improper behavior which discredited their priesthood: that they were arrogant and did not take wives because of their conceit, for they felt that no other family was as distinguished as theirs, and they did not have children; that they were not friendly to one another; they wanted to determine the halachah in the presence of their Rebbi (Moshe), or, they awaited the death of Moshe and Aharon, so that they could take over the leadership of the nation.

The list of reasons for their sudden death goes on and on. Thus, it is legitimate to ask why the Rabbis were not satisfied with the simple answer given by the Torah and had to bring all of the other reasons. The answer to that question lies in the two fundamental theological assumptions of rabbinic thinking with regard to theodicy: 1) Everything bad that happens to the (Jewish) people can be and generally should be seen as Divine punishment; 2) The rabbinic mind has always been sensitive to injustice, and consequently, to any sort of incommensurability of the Divine punishment. The first assumption actually belongs to the oldest strata of biblical theology and theodicy: God is always just and every suffering/injustice comes from human sin/error. It’s not the only theodicy in Judaism; other answers to the problem of evil, including various concepts of unjustified suffering, had been successively developed starting from the late Second Temple period. But the idea that every misfortune and suffering is a result of human and not Divine action marks the rabbinic mind definitely until Holocaust and to some extent even until today. Thus, regarding the second assumption, the Rabbis, seeing the disproportion of the punishment, had no other choice than to come up with a variety of reasons for it.

Whether it is right to see everything that happens to us through the lens of Divine reward/punishment is a very extensive topic. To see everything that way is more “faith oriented”, so to say, whereas to admit that there is undeserved pain and suffering seems to be more “reason oriented”. Both approaches have their pros and cons. To see everything through the lens of Divine punishment can be for us, and often is, a driving force to be more moral, more careful, more observant, namely, to be conscious of our own responsibilities. To admit that there is an undeserved pain and suffering opens our eyes and minds to everything we have no influence on and it often helps us deal with our feelings of guilt.

All that is particularly relevant in our political judgments today. There are always things we, as individuals, communities or nations could have done better. But there are also the things we had no influence on, even though we could sense long before that they would determine our fate in a way we would want to avoid. Let’s apply this to the current situation of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people: this country has a long record of corrupt governments and social injustices stemming from it. Had they done better in this matter, as a nation and society, their position right now would have probably been better. Even their president, Zelensky, with my entire sympathy and admiration towards him, committed several mistakes, like those in his speech in Knesset a few days ago: his comparisons of the present situation of Ukraine to the Holocaust, as well as his claims about the role of Ukrainians in saving Jews during that time, were very inaccurate. But none of what the Ukrainians and their leadership did or didn’t do in recent decades makes them deserve Putin’s Russia aggression. What the Ukrainian people absolutely deserve is greater support from the West, in every politically doable matter. But on the other hand, this fact should not make us blind to the difficult and painful events that took place in the course of Polish-Jewish-Ukrainian history. It’s not necessary to talk about these events right now but it’s also unnecessary to idealize the victims in order to help them to bring peace and justice.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA.
Menachem Mirski is a Polish born philosopher, musician, scholar and international speaker. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy and is currently studying to become a Rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. His current area of interests focus on freedom of expression and thought as well as the laws of logic as it pertains to the discourse of ideology and social and political issues. Dr. Mirski has been a leader in Polish klezmer music scene for well over a decade and his LA based band is called Waking Jericho.


The Bad Thing Happened. What’s Next?

Thoughts on Parashat Shemini

Menachem Mirski

Pesach, the festival of freedom, has just ended. The concept of freedom is inextricably linked to the concept of choice. Life brings choices before us, maybe not all the time, but it does, at least most of the time bring us in a position to choose. There are small choices and big choices. Small choices are usually easier to make because the consequences are smaller. The big choices entail bigger consequences – sometimes even entailing suffering, and thus, they are significantly harder to make. The inherent problem is our knowledge about the future is always limited, so hard choices are hard to make. But we have a choice.

We never have completely reliable recipes about what we should do at a given moment  because of those two facts: that our life requires choices made on time and that we never have complete knowledge about the future to make sure our choices are right (because we cannot wait infinitely for this knowledge, because we have to make our choices on time, quality of our knowledge is dependent on time we are given to gather the data and create a theory.) Thus we have the entire spectrum of attitudes towards life – we have people who value security above everything else and we have people who cannot live without taking risks. This duality of attitudes often overlaps with another duality: we have people who act patiently (not because they are afraid of losing security, but because they deeply think over consequences of any act)  and people who act quickly and move on, because they don’t care or believe that they know everything. We can multiply these overlapping dualities. The core problem is that we don’t have objective criteria to judge which attitudes are correct and which are not. I agree that to be an educated risk taker might be the best choice from all the above, but we usually know it post-factum, basing on the outcomes of certain decisions.

This week’s Torah portion describes the tragedy of the death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu.  Both of whom died as a result of offering a “strange fire before God, which He commanded them not (to offer.)” Aaron fell silent in the face of what had happened, but Moses seemed to overreact: he was both angry because of what had happened and at the same time afraid of a possible recurrence of this tragedy. For this reason he decided to be extra careful, to the extent that he forbade Aaron to perform a mourning ritual over his sons:

And Moses said to Aaron and to his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, “Do not bare your heads and do not rend your clothes, lest you die and anger strike the whole community. But your kinsmen, all the house of Israel, shall bewail the burning that the LORD has wrought. And so do not go outside the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, lest you die, for the LORD’s anointing oil is upon you.” And they did as Moses had bidden. (Leviticus 10:6-7)

Later we have a series of instructions on sacrifice procedures and a debate between Moses and Aaron on this subject. This story gave rise to an extensive rabbinical debate on all issues related to this incident, from the causes of the accident, to practical conclusions on how to deal with similar situations in the future. Without going into details, both the Bible and the Rabbis agree that Aaron was right: He was forbidden to rend his clothes as a sign of mourning but he was not obliged to force him to rejoice. The sacrifice does not bring the worshipper nearer to the Divine automatically without being accompanied by the proper state of mind. This would mean that if there had been other priests, besides Aaron, and his two remaining sons, Itamar and Eleazar, to perform the duties, they wouldn’t have to continue making those sacrifices.

What we can learn from this story is that, the fact that we are right when it comes to analyzing the causes of a given situation does not necessarily mean that we are right about how we should deal with its outcomes. Our knowledge is always limited, and it is often best to assume that OTHER PEOPLE KNOW SOMETHING WE DON’T. Let’s face it, this is why we often have different opinions. Let’s face it, we only know what we know – should we not be open to knowing … learning … what other people know. Let’s face it, this is the Talmud.

What we learn from this story is that being extra careful is not always good. The philosophy behind “better safe than sorry” can have negative effects, especially if fear, anger or any other strong emotions are involved.

Another very relevant consideration when it comes to restricting freedom is the inherent rebellion of man. Being overprotective and going too far with restrictions can do more harm than good. This is particularly relevant today with our stay at home “orders.” As a society, for our government, it is crucial to weigh the consequences of societal actions in a complete context. Specifically, when we talk about Covid stay at home restrictions and discussions of opening up society, we have to be very careful in putting restrictions on people and on humanity. This is not a “economy vs life” discussion, as any thoughtful thinker can see. The belief that by putting strict restrictions on people you can produce submission is not founded in human psychology or in history. We know from history, heck, anyone who has raised a teenager knows, if you place arbitrary restrictions on a soul they will rebel. Anyone that saw communism fall in the 90’s know that if you place arbitrary restrictions on society they will rebel. They will rebel for various reasons but the bottom line is being forcibly deprived of freedoms is not a natural state and unless you are trained and beaten down by a … communist society for instance, humans will not submit. The moment “the people” realize that the restrictions are not essential and even arbitrary they are bound to overreact and see all restrictions as arbitrary and worthy of rebellion and this will have tragic consequences, especially now when the stakes are so high. That’s the reason the proper balance is always important. The proper approach to this matter is to have a clear, understandable and justified set of rules and a good and effective system of enforcement.

Menachem Mirski- student  Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA