On June 17, 2015, our lives changed forever. We will never be the same after the horrible slaughter of nine innocent people at Mother Emanuel church, and on this Yom Kippur, it is worthwhile to ponder how we should go about our lives for the better knowing that this kind of evil lives so close to home. But before we do, it’s worthwhile to discuss the first time an unexplainable tragedy takes place in Jewish tradition. As it happens, the story I speak of provides the very backdrop for the first observance of Yom Kippur, and offers us insight about how we deal with catastrophes of all kinds.
We know very little about the family of Aaron, Moses’s brother and the first High Priest. We do know that when the system of sacrifices is introduced in the Torah, Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, are supposed to be Aaron’s main assistants in this holy work. But beyond that, these two men are historical footnotes, except in the way they died. Chapter 10 of Leviticus tells us that at the climactic moment of the dedication of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary, Nadav and Avihu ascend the altar and offers to God what is known as an “esh zarah,” a strange fire, one that God had not commanded. Without a word, God kills Aaron’s two oldest sons.
The reason for their deaths is one of the great mysteries of the Torah, and many a commentator has tried to offer a theory. Some have suggested that God wished to make an example of what can happen when people ignore the commandments. Others have theorized that this was a twisted punishment for Aaron’s role in the creation of the Golden Calf. Some even have argued, quite insensitively in my view, that this was actually a reward for Nadav and Avihu, a chance to be closer to God rather than to deal with mundane matters on Earth.
Yet one explanation seems to satisfy most queries. Just a few verses after the description of these deaths, God commands the remaining priests to not be under the influence of alcohol when doing their holy work. Many conclude that Nadav and Avihu must have been drunk when offering the strange fire.
Regardless of what theory makes the most sense to you, it’s notable that God refrains from shutting down the entire sacrificial system right then and there. Based on this episode, we could reasonably think that being an Israelite priest is a perilous job, and perhaps it would be safest to take part in less risky kinds of ritual. But this is not the answer to the problem. In the ancient world, sacrifices were the language of the common man and woman who wish to communicate with God. Scrapping the whole sacrificial system and doing something completely different would not have resonated with the earliest Israelites. So instead, God creates reasonable barriers to ensure that the offerings can take place safely. And among these barriers is the one against consuming alcohol while performing these rituals.
So when the priests gather on Yom Kippur, as we saw in our Torah reading, there is a heightened sense of concern, but also a clearer understanding of the limits of behavior surrounding the sacrificial practice. And while not every accident can be prevented, and not every tragedy avoided, the priests know a little more about how to do their jobs safely and effectively.
It is imperative for us to apply these same lessons to where we stand today. Before the summer, the thought of a mass murder in Charleston, at a holy place, would have seemed unthinkable, or at least something that happens in other cities, not ours. Now we have a heightened sense of concern. But just as God realizes in the book of Leviticus, it is not time to fold up our tents and to cease our holy work. Like our ancestors, we must continue — just with a better sense of how to reduce the possibility of another tragedy.
This is why holy places such as ours have a moral obligation to finally stand up to those who block the path of sensible gun control. You don’t have to be an academic to know that the rate of handgun deaths in the United States is far worse than the rest of the industrialized world. You don’t have to know someone who has been killed by someone using a gun to understand that almost 100 handgun deaths per day in this country is an epidemic. And you don’t have to be a religious scholar to echo the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said that “an act of violence is an act of desecration.”
And I know that some of you believe that gun control is not the answer. I have heard the rationale that guns don’t kill, people kill. Indeed, there is no way to prevent every tragedy, just as Nadav and Avihu could have made numerous other mistakes having nothing to do with alcohol to ignite God’s wrath. But when God prohibited alcohol at all subsequent priestly functions, God made subsequent tragedies less likely. We have to do the same. Just as other nations have instituted background checks, serial numbers on weapons, childproof handguns, gun-ownership licenses, and other measures that have greatly reduced gunshot deaths, we too must do everything in our power to reduce the odds of the kinds of attacks that pierce the heart of a city, just as Charleston experienced this summer.
Indeed, we pray that the Mother Emanuel Nine did not die in vain. We pray that our elected leaders actually act like leaders to create common-sense strictures, just as we see in our reading of the Torah. And we pray that, as we commence the Yizkor service, we can be inspired by all of our loved ones who are no longer with us to do what we can to preserve life in all ways.