Unfathomable Ironies – Shemini 5784

D'var Torah | Leviticus

When the ancient Greek dramatists invented the technique of irony it was intended to reveal to the audience the significance of a character’s words or actions although they are unknown to the character. Later, irony comes to be used as a description of a state of affairs that seems deliberately contrary to what is expected. Leviticus 10:1-2 offers a scriptural example of irony.

To set the scene, readers must be aware of concept and context. The Mishkan, or portable shrine, is now complete and ready to be dedicated. According to Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg (The Hidden Order of Intimacy: Reflections on the Book of Leviticus [2022]), the Mishkan represents the healing remedy for the sin of the Golden Calf. Through the sacrificial cult performed exclusively in the precincts of the Mishkan, Israelites can now attain divine forgiveness and atonement. The shame of the Golden Calf may now be execrated through prescribed ritual. The precise moment for making this possible has arrived.

The people await an epiphany: a sign that would mean that God has approved of the construction and accepted their remorse. That sign was forthcoming. Fire came forth from God (Leviticus 9:24) and consumed the inaugural offerings on the altar. But the incense altar also needed to be lit. Rather than wait for divine fire, Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, both priests, ignited the incense and themselves are incinerated. Herein lies the irony. At the moment that matters were to be set right, all goes wrong. A time of anticipated celebration dissolves into a disaster. Rabbi Samuel ben Meir dramatizes a further irony: the fire that consumed the sacrifices is the fire that consumes the priests. The result is that the very instant the people were to rejoice becomes a time to mourn.

According to Zornberg, no commentator has been able to compellingly find meaning in this mysterious disaster. And perhaps that is what the text intends. Life is such that it is often punctuated by unfathomable ironies. It is not their occurrence that should concern us but our ability to navigate through them.

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