As we mark Yom Hashoah this week, Jews in the Diaspora will read Parshat Shemini, describing the violent deaths of Nadav and Avihu, as well as the tragic killing of Uzzah in this week’s haftarah. When analyzed together, these stories offer interesting lessons for Yom Hashoah.
The story of Uzzah is less well-known than that of Nadav and Avihu, so I will summarize it. King David has recently established Jerusalem as his capital city. He wishes to raise the prestige of God and the prominence of religion by establishing the Temple in his royal city. His first stage is to bring the Ark of the Covenant – which has been in exile for over fifty years – into Jerusalem. This journey is to be the ceremonial installation of the Ark in the city until, tragedy strikes; a horrible death halts the singing and dancing, and the festive procession grinds to an abrupt and tragic halt:
David assembled all the choicest men of Israel, thirty thousand strong… to bring up the Ark of God to which God’s Name was attached….
They loaded the Ark of God onto a new cart and conveyed it from the house of Avinadav… David and all the House of Israel danced before the Lord to the sound of all types of instruments: lyres harps, timbrels, sistrums and cymbals.
When they reached the threshing floor of Nachon, Uzzah reached out for the Ark of God and grasped it for the oxen had stumbled. And God was furious with Uzzah. And God struck him down on the spot and he died there with the Ark of God. David was distressed that the Lord had inflicted a breach upon Uzzah, and he named the place ‘Breach of Uzzah’…” (II Samuel 6:1-8)
Certain points of similarity are clear:
- Both are episodes of national celebrations, marking the dedication of the Mishkan/Temple. The emotions in each are the same: a mix of excitement and religious ecstasy at God’s increased closeness and involvement in the life of the nation, blended with a sense of awe of the divine.
- Both episodes depict God’s revelation or intense presence. In Shemini fire descends from heaven to consume the sacrifices, and in the Haftara, the Ark is referenced as a seat for God, a “merkava” or chariot for the divine (See Exodus 25, and Numbers 10:25-26).
- While the sounds of song and praise are still ringing in our ears, both narratives record a swift stroke from God causing sudden death.
- In both cases, the victims are high-ranking priests, righteous people. Nadav and Avihu are the elder sons of Aaron. Moses says about them: “Through those close to Me I show Myself holy” (10:4) – they were close to God and that is why they were treated with such strictness. Uzzah, too, is the son of Avinadav who had been charged with the service of the Ark during its exile, and Uzzah was positioned in immediate proximity to the Ark during the festive procession. The Talmud (Sotah 35a) comments on the phrase: “‘And he died there WITH the Ark of God’ – “Just as the Ark exists for all time, so Uzzah entered the world to come.” Neither victim is characterized as a sinner.
These stories open the Pandora’s Box of theodicy, the theological mystery of why the righteous suffer. On one level, we question whether these individuals were worthy of so severe a punishment. Clearly, they were guilty of a crime. Bemidbar (4:20) explicitly states that excessive proximity to the sacred Ark can cost a person his or her life. Likewise, it is clear that Nadav and Avihu did sin by offering “foreign fire” before God. These people are not blameless.
And yet, neither Uzzah nor Nadav and Avihu were evil. They might have slipped up or acted recklessly, responded instinctively and broken the letter of the law. But did their punishment match the crime?
Aaron’s Response; David’s Response
And yet it is worthwhile for us to dwell upon the response, the human response, to the tragedy of the deaths of these young promising people?
In Vayikra we read of Aaron’s response: “And Aaron was silent.”(10:4) – Aaron is unresponsive, he accepts the divine decree. He exhibits no outrage towards God. Did he cry at home for his children who were lost forever? Possibly, but we hear only of his silence. He never questions the Almighty.
David too never vocally questions God, but he displays more emotion. We read how he is “upset” or “distressed”. Does he feel that Uzzah has been treated badly? And here, a contrast begins. Aaron is left shocked. He doesn’t act. He speaks gently, and expresses no outrage, no sorrow. It is as if he is in shock. How about David?
[On the one hand, the comparison is unfair. Aaron’s pain at the loss of two children must have been immense. For King David, this tragedy sabotaged his ceremony of bringing the Ark to Jerusalem, it upset his religious sensibilities; maybe, David, too felt the loss of Uzzah. And yet, none of this comes near to the pain that Aaron would have felt at the death of two children.]
David does respond, and this in two ways. First, he names the place “Strike against Uzzah.” He wants to remember this calamity. Maybe also to remember Uzzah, but he seems determined to learn a lesson from this tragic death, to correct and learn from past errors.
His second response is to stage the same procession again, this time with several significant adjustments and alterations:
And David called for Zadok and Abiathar the priests, and for the Levites, for Uriel, Asaiah, and Joel, Shemaiah, and Eliel, and Amminadab, and said unto them: ‘You are the heads of the fathers’ houses of the Levites; SANCTIFY YOURSELVES, both you and your brethren, that you may bring up the ark of HaShem, the God of Israel, unto the place that I have prepared for it. For the last time, YOU DID NOT CARRY IT, and WE DID NOT CARRY IT ACCORDING TO THE LAW, hence God made a breach upon us.’ So the priests and the Levites SANCTIFIED THEMSELVES to bring up the ark of HaShem, the G-d of Israel. 15 And the children of the Levites CARRIED THE ARK OF GOD UPON THEIR SHOULDERS with the bars thereon, as Moses commanded according to the word of HaShem.” (Divrei Hayamim 15:11)
Look at the changes:
- It is now carried by Kohanim and Leviim
- They have specially sanctified themselves to prepare for the occasion.
- David realises that he has missed a critical law regarding the transportation of the Aron. The Torah tells us (Bemidbar 7:9) that the Aron is carried “on the shoulders,” not on a wagon. The wagon (see Samuel I, ch.6) is a Philistine way of transporting the Aron. Hence David does Teshuva. He reforms the manner in which the Aron will be brought to Jerusalem.
In other words, David engages in soul-searching. David’s response to tragedy is to soul-search and then to repair, to build, to try and try again.
In our generation we have also experienced tragedy, six million of the Holiest of the Holy, six million Uzzah’s, Nadav’s and Avihu’s, being burnt, struck down. The two responses that we have read – that of David and that of Aaron – should serve as worthy paradigms in our thinking about the Holocaust. On the one hand, silence should pervade in our response to the overwhelming tragedy of the Shoah, silence, purely due to our incapability to even grasp the enormity of the suffering, cruelty, and loss that is the Shoah. And silence, because the pain is so deep that we have no words. And then silence again; for who can understand how the Ribbono shel Olam, who is in governance of our world, might let any people, yet still His people, who bear His name – how could God allow them to suffer so dreadfully, such pain and humiliation, such death and destruction, such torture and violation? Words cannot give any comprehension. And so, we mourn the loss, we do not comprehend. We are silent. “vayidom Aaron!”
And yet, David throws us in another, very different direction. David Hamelech says, Let us rebuild, let us continue to stride upon that royal path to bring God’s name to Jerusalem. Let us tenaciously continue. Despite the inexplicable death, let us rise above it, and carry our Torah shoulder high, with a fanfare, to Yerushalayim. The rebuilding of our Torah, our nation and land is also a worthy response to the Holocaust. That is David’s response. Action, persistence, soul-searching and rebuilding.
Rav Alex Israel, Rav Alex Israel, a member of Beit Hillel, teaches at Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi and at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, where he serves as Director of Community Education. He is a popular lecturer at campuses and communities on three continents. In 2013, he published his first book: “I Kings: Torn in Two” (Koren), a commentary to Sefer Melakhim. His website is www.alexisrael.org, and his blog is www.thinkingtorah.blogspot.co.il, where he is currently posting about Sefirat HaOmer.
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