Douglas wrote that societies divide the world up into classifications: clean and dirty, fit and unfit, etc. Invariably, some objects and experiences do not fit the scheme. Is the soil in which plants grow a source of life, or is it dirt that is seen as a source of contamination and death? Wherever there are things that don't match the pigeon holes – or have an ambiguous relationship to the categories – society tends to push them into two realms: the sacred and the taboo.
If you think this just sounds like the primitive thinking of pre-modern people who instinctively fear or venerate anything they don't understand – if you think it is far from the scientific approach of our society – think about the way our modern, science-based world thinks about things that are on the boundaries of our categories. Doesn't our culture treat sexuality as being simultaneously "dirty" and sublime? Don't we venerate the violence we love to watch on the football field or in the movies, while we cringe in horror at the thought of violence in our neighborhoods? We, too, are caught in the love-hate response to things that do not comfortably fit into our social scheme.
This week's Torah portion (Shmini) describes in loving detail the practices of the offerings the Israelite's made to God in the Tabernacle as they wandered in the wilderness, and which they later would offer in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Torah describes how the sacrifices brought blessing on the people and how they caused the Presence of God to "appear to all the people" (Leviticus 9:23). The Tabernacle offerings helped to purify the people and made them worthy to have God dwell among them.
But the sacrifices also were a source of danger and death. In the only extended narrative story in the book of Leviticus, we read how Aaron's two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, made a fire offering on the altar that was, in some unspecified way, inappropriate and improper. The text tells us that, "Fire came from before Adonai and consumed them, and they died before Adonai" (Leviticus 10:2). Even more confounding and enigmatic, Moses tells his brother Aaron after the death of his two sons, "This is what Adonai has said, 'Through those who come close to Me am I made holy. Before all the people shall I be glorified'" (Leviticus 10:3).
What, we wonder, is so sanctifying about death of two men who made a mistake? How is God glorified by incinerating them? Jewish tradition has many – often contradictory – explanations for the death of Nadav and Avihu. I think that Mary Douglas would have seen it as an example of the convergence of purity and danger.
The sacrificial altars of ancient Israel were the place where the contradictions were resolved. The Israelites saw newly born domestic animals and harvested crops as being miraculous (and so, I add, should we). To whom did they belong? To the farmer who cultivated them? How could any human being take credit for such a miracle? Did they belong to God? If so, how could human beings have the audacity to use them for food?
By offering a portion of God's miracles back up to God, things with no clear categories were made comprehensible. Food was made suitable for eating through a rite that purified both the food and the consumers of the food.
The story of the death of Nadav and Avihu reminds us of the flip side of purification. Wherever categories are violated, there is also danger. In the ether-world where categories are blurred, one false step can end in death. The immolation of Nadav and Avihu is another kind of sacrifice – one in which the consumer becomes the consumed. As we – body and soul – are also miracles of God, we also are liable to become the offering.
I am thinking about all of this because, this week, I visited my doctor because some of the pieces of my miraculous body (specifically, the C5 and C6 vertebrae) are not working correctly. While I stood in the x-ray room, I tingled slightly with fear as the technician walked out of the room to zap me with a tiny bit of radiation. It's hard to keep that experience from feeling slightly dangerous. But, of course, it is a "sacred danger" – a moment to recognize that healing and destruction go hand in hand. Life and death are not opposites – they are playmates.
The doctor pointed out the areas of the image that show the problem. (Without the guidance of this latter-day priest, the image would make no more sense to me than the entrails of a sacrificial goat.) The experience launched me into the mindset of Mary Douglas and the ambivalent world of things that are outside of the usual categories. Am I well or am I unwell? Is the doctor who irradiates me a healer or a destroyer? Will the sacred rites of the examination room lead to purification and wellness, or is it a prelude to further danger and deterioration?
Before you send me your sympathy and prayers for healing, please know that my condition is not serious. I am in no mortal peril. I am just going through one of those moments that we all know about – that time when you have to pass through the uncomfortable place of being "a patient" – a person who is somewhere along the journey between illness and health. You've been there, too.
It is an experience that can bring us close to God. It reminds us of our frailty and vulnerability. It puts us in touch with our mortality and our dreams of being touched by Eternity – even though we know the danger of "meeting your Maker." We gain new insights into why Moses would tell his brother that God is made holy by those who come close to God, both in purity and in danger.
Other Posts on This Topic:
Shemini: The Thing
Nadav and Avihu