The Book of Leviticus is singularly obsessed with ritual. It is filled with laws about sacrifices and ritual purity. There are the occasional details about the familiar: keeping kosher and the more frequent unfamiliar: the mixing of wool and linen.
It contains only two stories. Both are tragedies. Both involve incidents where ritual goes terribly wrong.
The first is the story of the priests, Nadav and Avihu. They offer an alien fire. They die at the instance of the Lord. (Leviticus 10) Little explanation is offered. We are left wondering what they did that merited the punishment of death. I remain baffled.
I remain troubled.
The other story appears in this week’s Torah portion. It offers more details but is equally troubling. “The son of the Israelite woman cursed the Name of God, and he was brought to Moses—now his mother’s name was Shelomit—and he was placed in custody, until the decision of the Lord should be made clear to them.” (Leviticus 24)
And what is God’s determination? “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him.” Sadly, the Israelites did as God commanded and stoned him to death. Again what did he say that merited death? How can a curse deserve such punishment? What was so offensive about his words?
Perhaps his blasphemy was only inadvertent. Perhaps he sought to praise God but in his zealousness said something that others deemed inappropriate. What could have been so terrible that there was no other fitting punishment? I am baffled.
I am troubled.
What is blasphemous or alien are subjective determinations. What is labeled as foreign can only be discovered in the eyes of the insider. Such determinations draw a line between insiders and outsiders, between us and them. The Torah offers a counter impulse. It seeks to bring more inside. It repeats over and over again the command “There shall be one law for stranger and citizen alike.” While Leviticus is obsessed with ritual, the Torah as a whole is determined to establish one law for all. No distinction must be drawn between citizen and stranger.
The judgments of blasphemy and alien require an insider perspective. What I deem holy you might view as profane. What you view as a curse I might view as sacred. What you call alien I might call ordinary. What you deem foreign I might see as uplifting.
We are left perplexed. Do these stories contradict the law?
On the surface these episodes can be read as cautionary tales. Take God’s instructions wrong and death ensues. Curse God and you will be punished. Do a ritual in a foreign way and you will be killed. These stores are warnings. But what is a curse and what is foreign are matters of interpretation.
The plain meaning of these tales appears too severe. Too often the law writes people out. And then the narrative writes the unexpected in.
There is only one woman who is named in the entire Book of Leviticus. It is Shelomit, the mother of the man put to death for blasphemy. Why do we know her name? Why do we know the name of the person who suffers the unimaginable horror of witnessing her son stoned to death? Her name leads us to a discovery. There are times when the law turns tragic, when its observance can cause pain. Its terror is humanized. He had a mother!
And we are also intimately acquainted with the father of Nadav and Avihu. It is Aaron. He too sees his sons killed for what was perhaps only a youthful mistake. Perhaps they became carried away with their singing and dancing.
Aaron and Shelomit share a sad, and tragic, connection. Their children die. And their deaths are (apparently) sanctioned by God. We are left wondering. Can law lead to tragedy?
I remain baffled. I remain troubled.
“And Aaron fell silent.” And I imagine, Shelomit watched in horror.