Fire, and the Prairie

Parashat Shemini

For Congregation Ner Shalom, April 17, 2015

I was back on the prairie last week, visiting Chicago with the older of our family's two, who is considering going to school there. It was an extravagant couple days at the University of Chicago. Model classes offered to young people and their parents, including linguistics, economics and even one on the work of JRR Tolkien. There were talks by deans, provosts, trustees and even David Axelrod who now, seemingly, has his own department at the University called, um, the Department of Axelrod or something. I hadn't been an undergrad at the University. But I did study there as a graduate student in linguistics and then in the law school. I spent seven years in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. And then bang, there I was last week, in the middle of all of it again.

I was in pig heaven, which is a phrase I don't particularly understand, and which I'm reluctant to use on this week in which Torah first lays out our ancient dietary laws: no pigs, no camels or rabbits; locusts are fine in a pinch.

So instead let's just say I was filled with relentless, overflowing nostalgia. I knew it was a bad idea to communicate the fullness of this to the 18-year old who, in the face of such parental enthusiasm, could end up choosing the other school for no better reason than that. So I strolled the quads with my best-mustered poker face, trying to only intermittently point out where I used to sit with friends over coffee or where I used to study into the night or where we staged our protests.

It was an odd trip in some ways. My first time in Chicago not having a childhood home to stay in, it now being rented - legendary basement and all - to a set of young cousins. So I was feeling a certain displacement, a new uprootedness in my ancestral city, and maybe that's why I dug so fiercely into my connection with the university and its neighborhood. Just to try to feel at home. I strolled past former apartments. Wandered stealthily into the linguistics department office. Noticed the continuity of culture that certain coffeeshops maintained, even though no one working at or sipping tea in them was even born when they were my hangouts. I saw the Hyde Park Herald on the news rack, a neighborhood paper dating back to 1882, and thought fondly about our own Shira Hadditt, who was once its editor.

To top it off, the University's library had a special exhibit up about University of Chicago's queer history. It was startling and stimulating to see faces, names, stories from my old days. To be reunited, through plexiglass, with artifacts that I myself had donated to Chicago's LGBTQ archive years ago, including a cloth banner that I had considered - but decided against - ironing before donating, thinking who's ever going to see it, and there it was, in the display, wrinkled. And my gay pride quickly dissolved into a deep domestic shame.

The 18-year old was seemingly excited about this exhibit, maybe even proud, or I hope so, although overall I had a strong sense that if I began another sentence with "back in my day," this young, self-professed pacifist would have no choice but to slug me.

But this was my world! How could I not want to gift it all to him?

But such desires are of no use, really. It can't be done. This is the inevitable truth about launching a young person into the world. You're going along, thinking you'll get a chance to teach your kid everything you know or at least everything you wish you'd known at that age; you intend to fill them with self-confidence and hope; you expect to transmit some deep values and some street smarts. But when they're little there's so much reading and counting and shoe-tying that who has time and then they turn 13 and stop listening to anything you say anyway and you missed your chance to teach them cooking skills or gin rummy or a second language or whatever while they were still impressionable and then they turn 17 and now they're people and they start listening to you again but by now there's hardly any time left before they leave the nest and don't look back. And that's when you realize you never taught them how to balance a checkbook and you're uncertain if they can actually read an analog clock. And you fill with shock at your own failure. You certainly transmitted a lot to them, but you're just not quite sure what it was you transmitted. And what if you missed that one detail that could spell the difference between swimming and sinking, between contentment and disappointment, between safety and danger?

These thoughts and regrets must have been swimming through the High Priest Aharon's mind in this week's Torah portion, Shemini. It is a portion that contains a harrowing tale of Aharon in his first day on the job, finally beginning the priestly work after so many chapters of instructions. He stands in the presence of God in the Tabernacle doing the difficult, gory, unpleasant, earthy and unearthly work of the sacrifices. Allowing the people, through this crazy alchemy, to have a vision of God's glory on the doorstep of the Tent of Meeting and to then witness a fire coming forth from God, consuming the offerings.

Aharon finishes this work for which he has been lengthily prepared. And then, without warning, his eldest children, Nadav and Avihu, try it a different way. They offer something like incense, dropping it on the fire, and something goes terribly wrong. A flame issues from God and consumes them as it had just consumed the ox and the ram. In the moment of shock that follows this, Moshe, Aharon's brother, utters something enigmatic and moralistic and, in one of Torah's most poignant moments, Aharon stands there, mute.*1*

The sages, like most readers of Torah, hate this episode. They struggle long and hard to imagine what these two young people did that was so wrong. Why their deaths were justified. Was it the choice of incense? Was it something wrong with the fire pan? Maybe just that they didn't have God's express permission? Or maybe that they were drunk? Or maybe, as Nachmanides offers, they approached the altar with a youthful infatuation with God's power, God's gevurah, and a youthful indifference to God's kindness, God's chesed. They valued God's might and they were met with God's might. And thus the lesson for us is that whatever you choose to value above all else in the world needs to be something you're willing to risk getting back square in the jaw.

But mostly these explanations fail to satisfy us or to console Aharon. And with this episode, the ritual life of our people launches with the unanticipated sacrifice of the firstborn. An unsettling echo of Egypt.

While this plot is unhappy-making, it is not unlike a million anxiety dreams I've had, in which I am responsible for some harm to my kids, or am unable to save them from danger. Perhaps this story is meant to be like a dream, tapping into all of our fears of loss; our anxieties about the future; our feeling that if we had done better, the future would have come out differently.

In this dream, each of us is Aharon. Each of us serves a kind of priestly function. We are the priests, the Cohanim, of our own lives, orchestrating our offerings and our atonements and our petitions and trying to move our lives from sludgy states to holiness whenever possible.

And like Aharon, we are not just priests. We are parents too, some literally and all metaphorically. We all have a posterity. We have all been trying to convey to the future what we know and what we desire. To transmit what we've learned and how we've managed our journeys and how we've tended our own sacred fires. And we fear that despite our detailed instructions, the future will act in unpredictable ways, ways that could bring disaster.

Besides being Aharon, each of us is also Nadav and Avihu, his sons. Each of us has an imperfect knowledge of what came before us. Each of us longs to tend our own fire in our own way. To choose incense instead of blood or vice versa. None of us can worship at exactly the same altar as our parents or teachers or rabbis or leaders. To do so would be soul-killing. And in fact, we are told two verses later in Torah that Nadav and Avihu's cousins pulled them out of the holy chamber by their tunics, which Rashi takes to mean that their bodies were not physically consumed. The damage was to their souls.

The dream of this parashah is a dream of change. The risk it poses. And also its inevitability. There is no doubt that the future will undermine our best hopes. And it will heal some of our worst mistakes. In equal or unequal measure.

All we can do is do the best we can do. Tend our fires. And hope that when flame bursts forth from the Divine, it is not flame that consumes but flame that blazes a trail. So that the next generation can tend a fire that is different and maybe better.

At some point last week, I gave up hoping the 18-year old would worship at the altar of my Chicago days. I stopped telling my Hyde Park stories. My sentimentality and his youth made a truce. Instead we decided to do something together that neither of us had ever done, something to fuel both our flames.

We drove ten blocks south to the old Oak Woods Cemetery. We looked at its burial mound of Confederate prisoners upon which someone had scornfully (I presume) placed an empty bottle of Southern Comfort. And then we looked for graves of trailblazers who rest there. Ida B. Wells, the radical turn-of-the-century African-American journalist; Jesse Owens, the African-American runner whose prowess shamed Hitler at the 1936 Olympics; and Hyde Park's own Harold Washington*2*, Chicago's first black and first progressive mayor, whose ethos made possible gay rights in that city, and whose election so rocked the world that while I was on a 1983 visit to Eastern Bloc Czechoslovakia, the mere mention that I came from Chicago, which would have once produced an Al Capone pantomime, now elicited the amused observation, Ah, Chicago. Negri Burgermeister.

These three, Ida, Jesse and Harold, like Aharon's sons, offered something new and in response they drew fire. More fire than anyone deserves. But to our lasting good fortune, they weren't consumed.

And let that be our prayer for our children and their children and for our students and our cultural heirs. Let them bring the new ideas to make the world better, to fulfill a vision of justice and glory that we can't even yet imagine. Let them draw fire if that's what it takes, but use that fire to blaze paths for those who follow. And in the process, may they bring us one generation closer to Olam Haba, to a world perfected.

*1* For a beautiful review of rabbinic interpretation of Aharon's silence, see Rabbi David Kasher's current post on his blog, ParshaNut.

*2* For a good exploration of Harold Washington and his impact, see Gary Rivlin's biography, Fire on the Prairie.