Parashat Sh’mini, 2020

The Alien Fire

This week we read Parashat Sh’mini. Among the many details of sacrifices and offerings, we read the story of two of Aaron’s sons: Nadav and Abihu. According to the Biblical story, they offered on the altar an alien fire. And then, another fire came from God, consuming them and killing them. Aaron remained silent.

Many commentators tried to interpret what that strange fire was, and as I read this section of the Torah today, I cannot think about anything but the pandemic that is taking the lives of thousands upon thousands of people.

It is a strange fire, from the outside, that is killing us.

I was also impressed by the interpretation that the rabbis made in the Talmud, in the Tractate Sanhedrin 52A. They said that Nadav and Abihu were consumed by an internal fire that killed not their bodies, but their souls. The strange fire was the destroying fire of apathy and selfishness. As automata and thinking only of their own well-being, Nadav and Abihu became undead. Their actions were automatic, they saw numbers and not people, they saw themselves and no one else. Their bodies lived, but their souls were dead. They were like robots, like living corpses.

Many of us have moments of weakness, feeling so vulnerable, so alone, so overwhelmed by such an incredible reality, almost as if taken from an apocalyptic nightmare. To avoid being consumed by an external fire, we already know what measures we need to take and how to take care, and I hope that we are all aware and responsible for our own health and that of our fellow human beings. But when reading this section of the Torah I ask myself, what can we do so that the internal fire, the fire of the ego, selfishness and isolation does not consume us?

The Torah gives us a hint of the answer. Moses says to his brother, almost as a consolation in the face of death and pain: “Bikrovai Akadesh ve-al p’nei chol ha-am ekabed” which means “Through my close friends I will become sacred, and thus I will be worthy of the respect of the people.”

My close ones are of course, first of all, my relatives and loved ones, my friends and neighbors. But my close ones are also the members of my community, the inhabitants of my city and, ultimately, every human being.

What will prevent the external fire from consuming our soul is to think in the plural, about “us”, about how we can help each other to face this tragedy. This is how we get “Kavod” and respect. If there is a lesson that the pandemic leaves us, it is that self-centeredness leads us to nothing more than consuming ourselves. COVID-19 does not distinguish between races, religions, nationalities or political ideas, and makes us see that to overcome our smallness, we do not have to isolate ourselves, but the other way around, we have to unite, despite the physical distance, and perhaps because of it.

It is becoming increasingly clear to me that no one is going to be saved as an individual if we don’t think of ourselves as a humankind, as a whole one unit. And that is one good thing among all the pain and suffering: the attitude of sensitivity and humanity that fill our eyes with tears of emotion, and that open a door to hope and reunion with our true essence as divine creatures, and our most deep human condition.