04/17/2012 07:49 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Strange, Inconceivable Fire: Leviticus And Holocaust Remembrance Day

There are times when the weekly Torah portion dovetails neatly with contemporary life. There are other weeks when writing a reflection requires digging deep into the wells of creativity to find a resonant connection. And then there are the weeks when it is uncomfortably jarring to read the Torah portion in the context of a particular moment in our lives. For me, this is one of those weeks.

The Torah portion of Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47) begins by instructing the priests -- Aaron and his sons -- on how to carry out animal sacrifices, specifically sin offerings and burnt offerings. The concept of sacrifices, not to mention the bloody details, is strange enough to our modern ears. But this week, as we prepare to commemorate Yom Ha'Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, on Thursday, it is almost sickening to read how "the flesh and the skin were consumed in fire" (Leviticus 9:11), and even more so to consider these words and acts something God would command.

Furthermore, in a linguistic application whose theological implications make me shudder, the word "holocaust" is derived from the Greek word for the Temple sacrifices, suggesting that the victims of the Nazis were burnt offerings to God.

The instructional narrative of this Torah portion is then interrupted by a disturbing story in which two of Aaron's sons, the young priests Nadav and Avihu, offer what the text calls esh zarah, usually translated as "strange fire" -- an offering not requested by God -- and are in turn themselves consumed by God's fire (Leviticus 10:1-2). In the aftermath of this tragedy, Moses warns Aaron and his two remaining sons to refrain from the outward signs of mourning, but reassures them that the rest of the community will mourn their kinsmen.

Though the story serves an obvious purpose in underscoring the tremendous power of the priests and the need for them to be precise in fulfilling their ritual duties, much is left unanswered. Were Nadav and Avihu righteous men but inexperienced priests who made one fatal mistake, or were they deviating from the priestly playbook in arrogance? Were they drunk, or were they so holy that they ascended to God in fiery ecstasy? Are we to mourn them, condemn them for their actions, or hold them in awe for their direct encounter with God? Generations of rabbinic commentators have argued these and other possibilities.

Rereading the story this year, two elements struck me. First, the mourning prohibition Moses requires of Aaron and his sons. How could Moses ask his brother and nephews to forego these mourning rituals? I picture this family holed up in the Mishkan, the portable Temple of the desert, afraid to move for fear of breaking down or of eliciting more dangerous fire, but filled to overflowing with rending grief. The text does not detail the mourning of the community beyond saying that they will cry (Leviticus 10:6), but I cannot imagine that even the loudest communal wailing could give appropriate voice to the personal grief of Aaron and his family.

In light of Yom Ha'Shoah, this scene reminds me of the history of uncertainty and discomfort around how to mourn publicly for the victims of the Nazis. Note, for example, that the original Israeli proposal for a commemoration pegged it to the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which began on April 19, 1943. It is, often, easier to speak of and mourn for those who resisted than those who seemingly did not. Ultimately, the Israeli date for Yom Ha'Shoah is determined in relationship to their Memorial Day and Independence Day, thereby rooting the political origin story of the State of Israel and its ongoing military struggles in the story of the Holocaust. Public mourning always has its context and its purposes, which may or may not relate to the personal needs of mourners.

I am also struck by the power of personal stories and of naming. The story of Nadav and Avihu is haunting not only because it is dramatic and unresolved, but also because the two victims are named and are the sons of Aaron and the nephews of Moses and Miriam, all characters we've come to know well by this point in the biblical narrative. How, I wonder, might we read this episode differently if the two young men consumed by fire were unnamed, of unknown lineage?

Of course, mourning for millions of lost lives is necessarily different than for two. Part of the challenge of Yom Ha'Shoah is the inconceivable vastness of the tragedy, which can be simultaneously overwhelming and distancing. How can one wrap one's mind around a number like 6 million? And how can one relate to the loss of each individual life, especially if one does not have a specific relative or story in mind?

WATCH Violin Survivor:

In college, I participated each year in a communal exercise to grapple with both the hugeness of the Shoah and its individual impact. Each year on Yom Ha'Shoah, we organized volunteers to read the names of the victims, in the middle of campus, for 24 consecutive hours. During my sophomore year, I took the 3 a.m. shift, and stood in front of the library in the dark, chilly April night, reading names into the quiet emptiness. In the midst of this rhythm, I stopped suddenly, my stomach sinking, my breath catching. For there it was: my own name.

I have no idea who that Judith Rosenbaum was, where she was from, or how old she was when she died. Perhaps she was a relative, perhaps not. But I do know that reading her -- our -- name changed me. It brought me into the story in a new way.

Maybe that is the role of Nadav and Avihu, too. We never learn what really happened, just as I won't know the story of this other Judith Rosenbaum. But the possibilities left open by the absences in the biblical narrative make room for us to identify with them, or with Aaron and his family. And suddenly, in the midst of the litany of laws of priestly sacrifices, we might find ourselves confronted by a consuming fire.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.