Shemini

Texts and beliefs By Allan Myers 19th Apr 2017

Is there such a thing as Divine Justice?

In this week’s sedra, we find the strange episode of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, who apparently made some kind of sacrifice using what the Torah calls “strange fire” (Lev. 10:1). We are told that the manner in which this sacrifice was offered broke God’s rules and, as a result, Nadav and Avihu were themselves consumed by fire – summarily executed by God.

Our Sages have puzzled over this episode for millennia, but I don’t believe anyone has come up with a satisfactory reason why God decided to punish the two brothers who wished to serve Him in their own way.

On Monday, we will commemorate Yom HaShoah, the day set aside to commemorate the Holocaust in the Jewish calendar – a day on which we remember (amongst others) those who were killed by fire for no apparent reason.

As I said, the Sages through the ages have tried to come up with an explanation as to why Nadav and Avihu were executed. For instance, Rashi, in his commentary on Leviticus 10:2, quotes a midrash speculating that they were drunk (based on the fact that the passage which follows this episode in the Torah tells of the dangers of strong drink). In the same way, some of our more egregious modern commentators have suggested that the victims of the Holocaust must have sinned. Some commentators have even attributed the victim’s culpability to sins committed in his or her previous life. This rationale was epitomised by a claim made by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in his weekly sermon on 5 August 2000, and reported with horror by news outlets the next day (you can find many examples online). He said that the murder of the six million happened because of their reincarnated souls. Those souls had apparently sinned and had been given the chance to atone by returning in new bodies. They failed to achieve t’shuvah, repentance, and so received their punishment in the Holocaust.

This is part of a tradition, begun in the Talmud and reinforced by the kabbalists, that, if disaster strikes, we must be to blame. If the Rabbis couldn’t identify the sins we had committed which led to the disaster, they developed the idea of sinat chinam, baseless hatred, such as that which is said to have led to the destruction of the Second Temple.

Maimonides believed that all the evil in the world was the product of free will, which allows those who would destroy us to follow the path of their intentions. Does this free will extend to us, so that we have a way of dealing with evil if we choose to do so?

Today, many organisations are trying to inculcate a sense of morality in young people so that the events of the last century are not repeated. But they face an uphill task against fascist organisations, both European and Middle Eastern, that are gaining ground.

I don’t believe there is such a thing as Divine Justice. Human justice, yes. But if it’s human justice, then there’s human injustice too. Perhaps the Divine can help us to stamp it out. That is what I will be hoping for on Monday.

Allan Myers is a a Chartered Accountant. He began teaching at Edgware Masorti Synagogue and Gesher in 1988, and completed a degree at Leo Baeck College in Hebrew and Jewish Studies.

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