Monday, April 8, 2024

6 Months After October 7th: Two Different Kinds of Fire

In the Torah portion that we read last shabbat, Parashat Shemini, we come across a strange and previously unknown concept – that of אש זרה (Eysh Zara) – a “strange fire”  offered up by Aaron’s sons. According to our text, Nadav and Abihu brought their firepans to the altar after the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was dedicated and proffered an offering to God that had not been commanded.

As a result of this action, a fire from the heavens descended and they died at the hand of God.

This story is unsettling for many reasons.  It is brutal, sudden and unexpected.  It doesn’t seem to be fair. It’s also incomplete .  We don’t truly understand what the fire was and why Nadav and Abihu deserved such a horrific punishment.

Over the centuries, commentators have debated the meaning of the fire and the circumstances that brought such a horrific punishment. Responses range from portraying Aaron’s sons as hungry for power, to being religious zealots – so overcome by their exposure to God that they acted impulsively.

The basic idea behind every explanation is that there had to be a compelling reason for their punishment.  After all, God doesn’t act impulsively, right?

But what if there isn’t?  What if the deaths of Aaron’s sons were just a series of tragic events that led to catastrophe that had no real rationale or reason?

Or even worse – what if this story is a parable about the inevitability of violence, death and destruction in our world?

As we look at the world today and see how tragedies occur all around us - all the time, it becomes increasingly compelling to view the Eysh Zara as a horrific, mysterious event without explanation.  To try and rationalize tragedy places us in murky moral waters. The truth is, we can see potential alien fires all around us.

It has been six months since the tragedy of October 7th. During this time, we have born witness to the destructive and devastating fire of the Hamas Terrorists who burned, beat, raped, kidnapped and murdered innocent Israelis: at a music festival, in their homes, on the battlefield and, in the process, ripped  hole into the soul of the State of Israel and the Jewish people around the world.

The fires that raged at Kibbutz Beiri, Kfar Aza, the Nova music festival and the entire Gaza envelope continue their destructive path to this very day.

Everywhere we look, we can see Eysh Zarah – “Strange Fire”:  

  • The fires of war and the need to respond to the horrors of October 7th – to rescue the hostages and ensure that Hamas’ infrastructure will be destroyed.
  • The fires of hatred – the anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism that had been laying dormant and now have been re-ignited by a coordinated campaign: on the streets of our cities, on the internet, in college campuses and high school classrooms, in legislative halls and public events, activists are using the horrors of this war to justify their hateful rhetoric and simplistic canards that draw ignorant followers to repeat chants and enact legislation calling for the destruction of the State of Israel. So many innocents and ignorant young people are playing into the hands of the most radical regime in the world – Iran – and it’s proxies: Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis.
  • The fires of fear and mistrust that many of those who were born in the past 50 years do not know first-hand – but are built into the inter-generational trauma that has been a part of our people from generation to  generation.

One thing about fire that we all know – especially here in the west where wildfires are a constant menace – is that once it is started, it tends to rage, grow and become increasingly difficult to extinguish.

Fire can and often does burn uncontrollably – and innocent lives are lost in the midst of the blaze.

War rages like fire. It cannot be controlled.  The loss of life on both sides of this horrific conflict increases exponentially:  from soldiers killed in the line of duty, to innocent civilians caught up in the crossfire; From terrorists who hide in the midst of the civilian population and who gain power with every death of a non-combatant; to aid workers who are killed as the result of horrific, inexcusable mistakes by the IDF – as we saw this past week with the tragic deaths of the World Food Kitchen volunteers.

This week marks six months of war in Gaza. What began as a clear and just counterattack against a vicious enemy who committed horrific acts of terror, murder, rape and violence has morphed into something else – an Eysh Zarah – a strange fire that has taken on a life of its own – destroying everything in its path:

Yes – much of Hamas’ infrastructure has been dismantled, but this has taken place at a cost of tens of thousands of lives. It also has bred more terror:  each family that has lost a loved one has also gained additional searing hatred for Israel as a result of their tragedy.  This in turn, is fertile ground for new recruits for Hamas and other terrorist organizations.

With each death of innocents, with every building that is destroyed, the ideology of Hamas – flamed by Iran and its proxies - grows stronger

The hunger that has engulfed the Palestinian people rages like wildfire

The grief of Israelis: those who have lost loved ones; those who wait in agony for news of their captive family members; those whose children fight in the streets of Gaza – also burns and destroys

The voices of hundreds of thousands of citizens protesting in the streets of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and almost every major city in Israel – demanding new elections and a reckoning from both the Government and the IDF for the mistakes that have been made and an end to racist, authoritarian and self-serving governance burns stronger every day as well

Maybe this is the lesson of the Eysh Zarah – the strange and destructive fires that we- as human beings ignite in order to show our strength, hatred and desire to control that which is uncontrollable…

There is another example of a burning fire in the Torah that appears to be a counterbalance to the blaze that consumed Aaron’s sons – that of the Burning bush encountered by Moses on Mt. Sinai. When Moses received his call from the midst of the flames, he understood that the fire that was burning was not destructive – but rather, it was a divine call for service and hope.

At this sober 6 month anniversary, may we find the strength to look into the fire – and not see hatred, but, perhaps, like Moses Mt. Sinai – see a bush that burns and is not consumed – sending a message of peace and hope.

Ken Yehi Ratzon – May this be God’s Will.



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