When Aaron’s sons offered “strange fire” (aish zarah) as a sacrifice, God responded by smiting them with fire, killing them. Aaron’s sons had names, which makes it sadder. This distressing story happens in Leviticus 10. At age 13, I struggled to explain Parashat Shemini for my mitzvah. In a few weeks, when Shemini is read again (30 March 2019 / 23 Adar II 5779), I will be three times my mitzvah age. I still do not have an explanation that informs, comforts or satisfies. I am not sure that there is one to be made.

When I consider what others have said about Shemini, I categorize their interpretations based on how comprehensible they believe God’s response to be.

  • First option (most comprehensible): Aaron’s sons sinned in human terms. They displayed arrogance, sloppiness or disrespect. The story is therefore a morality tale, containing a universal ethical lesson. Even if one doesn’t believe in God, it’s comprehensible that Aaron’s sons deserved to be punished for a lack of virtue.
  • Second option: Aaron’s sons sinned more narrowly against the divine-human relationship. We know the precise infraction; the Torah indicates that they sacrificed incorrectly. While this doesn’t give us any insight into our ordinary relationships and obligations, it hints at special rules for approaching God such as obeying rituals carefully. We may not understand why these rituals must be obeyed, but at least we know what to do. Aaron’s sons caused a rupture with God, and their punishment was fair.
  • Third option: Aaron’s sons somehow offended God, and only God knows exactly what was so infuriating or intolerable. The fate of Aaron’s sons was mostly unfair. The story warns us that God is powerful and we should watch our backs, but we’re not advised of what we must do to avoid stirring the hornet’s nest.
  • Fourth option (least comprehensible): Aaron’s sons behaved unobjectionably and were not deserving of any punishment. They were killed randomly and unfairly. On this reading, it barely matters that it was God who burned them up; their deaths may as well be chalked up to natural disaster. What can we learn from this? Only that Aaron’s sons were two of the countless people throughout history and up to the present day who have gotten the short end of the stick, that accidents and injustices happen, and that we have to move on.

As I said, none of these approaches seems satisfying to me. No one likes to hear that God kills people, still less to hear that God kills people over ritual infractions. But neither is anyone excited to hear a Torah story explained away as having nothing whatsoever to do with God, goodness and justice. (Secular stories, too, are boring if they’re not driven by motive and character.) I couldn’t decide how to frame this when I was one-third of my present age, and I can’t solve it now. I do not know how b’nai mitzvah will explain it during this month’s reading of Shemini.

There is a reason I’ve been thinking about this recently. Several years ago, when I had a brief illness, a medication caused me to hallucinate that I was burning. Our mental images can be caused by our brain chemistry, but they also derive from the stories we tell. It’s crucial to pay attention to our stories and our interpretations of them. When I cannot understand a story’s meaning, I sometimes chase the story down the rabbit hole, and this fixation can be unhealthy. My own frustration over unresolved stories can cause my brain to produce images that are not good (with or without medication). My memoir of this period of my life is titled “Bad Fire” after the aish zarah in Shemini.

“It is good to be aware of what food we are taking in before we swallow it,” I wrote in “Bad Fire.” “To live truthfully and bring ourselves to tell the truth, to know ourselves from the inside as well as the outside, is a big project.”

Religious innovation is often perceived as a threat, but it can’t really hurt us. Innovation ties into themes of gender, sexuality, art, growing into our own power, challenging people who claim to have exclusive truth and being honest with ourselves so that we can open to real connection with others. The Indigo Girls’ song “Strange Fire” is about just this.

Here’s one of my truths: I don’t know what the character of God was thinking when he set Aaron’s sons on fire. Nothing inside or outside this Torah portion conveys that information to me. I do not want to justify burning people. I resist internalizing other people’s rationalizations of this story.

If I’ve learned anything based on the aish zarah story in the last 26 years, it is to be honest about what I believe. It’s often good to follow instructions, but it’s bad to imagine that God sets people on fire. Fire has not been a survival-oriented image for me. This is a story to which I’ve had to say “no.” It is freeing to be honest about that. That lesson is not within the text, but it was learned from the collision of the text with my life. The wisdom came the hard way.

My blessing on all the 13-year-olds this Shabbat Shemini is that they should have long, complex lives from which they gain astonishing insights and that they should be honest with themselves to ease their path.

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