How often, when something bad happens, do we need to find fault? We don't like accepting things as they are, so we play the blame game. Two of Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, were in the middle of bringing their first sacrifice to God when they suddenly died. So few details are given, our minds begin to wander. What did these boys do to cause this misfortune?
Century after century, our rabbis, of blessed memory, struggle with this as well. Theories abound: maybe Nadav and Avihu didn't do what God asked, or they were drunk, or they were high, or they were worshipping idols, bringing things into the Holy of Holies, plotting a coup on Aaron and Moses. We feel the need to place a sin upon them, for them to be breaking a rule. But the Torah does not say. It is left a mystery – just that they were killed. The more forgiving among the rabbis say that God saw their passion and needed them to come close, chose to take them out of this world.
Nadav and Avihu must have been truly evil to warrant instant death. Worse than any other character from the TaNaKh because no one else gets this kind of instant punishment. The Torah only says that they brought Esh Zarah – strange fire. We can guess what that is, but how can we know? Is it worse than…name almost any character. Adam blatantly disobeys God, yet lives 930 years. Cain murders his brother out of jealousy, and he lives to see his offspring. Menasheh is the worst king ever, pure evil and worshiper of idols, yet he successfully reigns for fifty-five years. The TaNaKh is filled with stories of pretty nasty stuff, yet the only people to die so suddenly and unexpectedly are Nadav and Avihu, and we don't know what rule they broke!
In my mind, this is not a lesson in God's vengeance for doing wrong, this is a reminder that we just don't know everything; that sometimes terrible things happen to people who are good; that life doesn't go our way; that there are accidents and incidents. We can explain them away all we want, but that does not help the mourner, that does not bring comfort. It doesn't quell the pain.
Look at Aaron's pain. Vayidom Aharon. The first word has two meanings. One is that Aaron stopped. The great rabbi Ya'akov ben Asher (known as the Tur, 1270-1340) reminds us that this word is also used in other miraculous/odd stops in the Bible. For example, the miracle of the sun stopping in its track to help the Israelites win a battle in Givon. Or King Saul's son Jonathan who got the army to halt on command. Or Pharaoh's army that froze in its tracks while pursuing the Israelites. Aaron stopped. And not only stopped – a sudden standstill when otherwise he should have kept moving. God commanded him to do something, but he became motionless, paralyzed, like the sun standing still.
But VaYidom also means that he was silent. Rabbi David Kasher of the organization Kevah likens the silence to the still, small voice of God who spoke to Elijah the Prophet. Eliyahu HaNavi saw miracles – windstorms and fire storms and earthquakes, but God was not there. Then God came out of a Kol D'mama Dakah. A still small voice. D'mama is from the same root as Aaron's silence – Yidom.
If we can take these two stories together, we can read that God was not in the fire. There was an accident at work and, in a true tragedy, two young men were killed in the line of duty. No one's fault, just appalling. Aaron, a father who lost two sons in one day, is heartbroken. But God is not in the fire. God is in the silence. God is with Aaron as he is trying to come to terms with the awful reality. Midrash teaches that the sentence mentions God's name twice and Aaron's once because God was twice as upset as Aaron. God did not want this to happen either.
We can look at the generations of rabbis and thinkers who pin the fault on Nadav and Avihu, understanding their rationale: it is easier to place blame. It is so much easier to point fingers. It makes the situation less complicated. It is much more difficult to sit in the silence, in the stillness of the world when things are not going your way. In the pain and the suffering. But God is with us, or can be if we invite God in to these impossibly difficult moments.
It's not for another two weeks that we, Torah readers, can begin to cope with Aaron's pain. Parshat Acharei Mot starts with the words, "After the deaths of Aaron's two sons…" We need time to grieve, to sit in silence and in pain. Perhaps, like Aaron, we can find God in the new sudden silence. We don't look to blame God for the deaths, since God is mourning as much as we are, but we find holiness in the response to tragedy.