Parashat Shemini: The Way of Strange Fire

Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible.

I love the Torah. I love it’s weird, dreamtime way of teaching. I love that one verse reveals something ugly and painful and the next verse is sweetness and light. I love this because it’s a true reflection of life as I know it – there are parts of life that are just plain horrible and others that are pure, stunning beauty, and sometimes they go hand in hand. The Torah gives this over without flinching, with no sense of contradiction, and with no apologies. The sweet and the bitter are marbled in the Torah, just as they are in real life. This week’s portion offers three such marbled verses: VaYikra 10:1-3. Here is the scene: After months of preparation, the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary the Israelites used after the Exodus from Egypt, has been built and we are about to conduct our first rite. Moses’ brother, Aaron, performs a couple of sacrifices, blesses the congregation, the sacrifices are consumed and then:

Aarons’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his fire pan, they put fire in them and placed incense upon it; and they brought before HaShem an alien fire that had not been commanded of them. A fire came forth from before HaShem and consumed them, and they died before HaShem. Moses said to Aaron: Of this did HaShem speak, saying: “I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me, thus I will be honored before the entire people;” and Aaron was silent.

Typically there are two reactions to this piece of text: 1) “They got what they deserved and so will you if you defy God,” or 2) “If this is the God you want me to worship, I’m outta here.”

Both of these positions seem dull and simplistic to me. The Torah is neither dull nor simplistic. Torah is complicated and challenging and invites us to think and feel deeply. It is trying to prod us into being partners with God, to bring about a time of repair and wholeness in our fractured world, by any means necessary. With that in mind I’ve tried to tease out some wisdom and guidance from this harsh and cryptic scene.

Reading this piece I think of the murders of Harvey Milk, Matthew Shepard, Brandon Teena and Gwen Araujo. Year after year we have witnessed our queer children being consumed by fire. As a Jew, I’m familiar with this horror. And I’m also familiar with all the wrestling and grappling we have had to do to move past our tragedies. When we find ourselves witnessing incomprehensible destruction we have to ask, “What must we do to transform this banal act of violence into an affirmation of life?” Answering that question is the key to transcending human judgment so that we can enter into a full and deep relationship with God through each other.

As the text teaches us: “I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me, thus I will be honored before the entire people.”

7556933_origMy friends, getting near God is rarely easy, safe or painless. When moments of random violence strike, some of us seek reasons to lay blame and some of us, like Aaron, are stunned and silent. It is in that silence that deep strength, wisdom and courage are born; courage to look at death head on and still stay on the path; wisdom to know that God works through both blessing and curse; and strength to choose blessing.

Death is inevitable, and sometimes it comes unexpectedly and roughly. In our grief we stand at a silent juncture. We can blame, we can run, or we can sort out the opportunities for more violence from the opportunities for more closeness. In that sorting we choose to frame our loss as a sacrifice which cuts through bigotry, oppression and ignorance. Both the Jewish and queer communities have performed social alchemy by transforming unspeakable acts of hatred and violence into art, legislation, ritual, education and beauty. We have squeezed wisdom out of ignorance, and sanctity out of depravity. We have written plays, and created foundations; we have sewn and sung and studied. We have not been diminished through death. Rather, we have blossomed. We have grieved and suffered to be sure, but as it is written, we have “turned our mourning into dancing” (Psalm 30).

Jews and queers have always been accused of being different, alien and inferior. Thankfully, we have generally resisted those judgments. Instead we have persevered in our unique way of being. We have mirrored exactly what this week’s raw piece of text teaches. We have offered strange fire. We have suffered death. We have witnessed these traumas as a community and we have found sanctity, closeness and honor. We are blessed to have a Torah that teaches us to not shy away from life’s bitter moments, but to take them with both hands and offer them up as sacrifices. May our capacity to learn, heal and grow always outweigh our tendency towards judgment and blame.  And may the memory of our loved ones be for a blessing for us, and for all the world.

Posted on March 17, 2014

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