Bowls of Blood and Strange Fire
On Toxic Mentorship
This is Life as a Sacred Text, an expansive, loving, everybody-celebrating, nobody-diminished, justice-centered voyage into one of the world’s most ancient and holy books. We’re working our way through Leviticus these days. More about the project here, and to subscribe, go here.
Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, took each one his pan, placed fire in them, put smoking-incense on it, and brought near, before the presence of God, strange fire, such as God had not commanded them.
And fire went out from the presence of God and consumed them, so that they died before the presence of God. (Leviticus 10:1-2)
It’s one of the great questions that has consumed (pun intended) commentators over the ages:
How on earth are we to understand what’s going on in this story?
There are a lot of different answers.
Midrash (Sifra Acharei Mot 6) notices that the first commandment after the episode of their death is,
Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. (Leviticus 10:9)
And as such concludes (in the name of Rabbi Yishmael) that Nadav and Avihu performed the Temple service while drunk.
This is a) Pretty logical, when you think about it and b) A gorgeous example of the midrashic/rabbinic method, by the way. The text presents a question (aka: what did they do?) And through further study, the answer is revealed.
Others (eg Sifra, Shemini, Mechilta d'Miluim 2:20) suggest that they wanted to get closer to God, after being in awe of the way fire came forth from God to consume the offerings in the altar in the Tabernacle service of Leviticus Ch 9.
Rashi, writing during and after the devastation wreaked by the First Crusades, brings a midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 12:2) from Moses’ perspective in which Moses says that he assumed he or Aaron would “sanctify” this Tabernacle, but instead it turns out that Aaron’s sons were the ones to do so. (This presumes their death was the result of divine favor—the strange fire received as a positive offering, their sacrifice a true sacrifice in every sense of the word.) Notably, the midrash uses the word “kadesh,” to sanctify. Martyrdom in Judaism is known as Kiddush HaShem, sanctifying the Name (of the Holy One). There was a lot of Jewish martyrdom during the time of the First Crusades—Rashi, here, likely regarded Nadav and Avihu’s death for God as part of that tradition.
The Talmud (Yoma 53a) asserts that they committed a pretty straightforward ritual offense, mishandling the Tabernacle incense; another early Rabbinic text (Sifra, Shemini, Mechilta d'Miluim 2:22) says that they brought the wrong kind of fire into the Holy of Holies.
But the explanations go on and on: They Died Because They Didn't Have Children. They Died Because They Were Not Married. They Died Because They Drew Too Close or Drew Close Without Permission. They Died Because They Disrespected Moses. They Died for Their Father's Sin With the Golden Calf. They Died Because They Didn’t Trust God To Make The Fire Godself. They Just Were Accidentally In the Wrong Place At The Wrong Time.
We also have the Indigo Girls’ “Strange Fire,”—above—written by Amy Ray, who as it turns out was a Religious Studies major in college (of course she was! Of course she was) which is actually a very beautiful midrash, in which her (presumably queer)love is presented as the nourishing "strange fire" condemned by a judgmental God and church, presumably of her southern Methodist youth.
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And yeah, OK, there’s the argument to be made that they did a thing and so they suffer the consequence (or maybe get pulled up to Heaven early because it’s so great or whatever.)
But there’s another story in here.
There’s a story about training and mentorship.
We have an ordination scene.
Aaron is the High Priest. He’s the guy in charge. He’s responsible. He has other priests who work under him. But the Tabernacle is his spot, ultimately (OK, it’s God’s spot, but you know what I mean). He’s the one who has the keys to lock up at night.
His kids are younger. They’re still learning. One of them will be the High Priest someday, but… not yet.
What if the story is this?
What if the story is that there was this guy, and he was all too happy to snatch the reins of leadership the moment his brother’s back was turned up Mt. Sinai. This guy not only gladly helped build an idolatrous god to allay the fears of those nervous about Moses’ long absence, but managed to get the people to take the gold from the women and children of the camp and give it to him to do so. This is the guy who charismatically whipped the people into a frenzy of eating and dancing, who likely would have continued on if not caught by Moses (and, well, God.) Who, when caught, blamed the people and acted as though the appearance of the Calf was an accident in which he had no part.
So: That guy. Who suddenly, when the Calf isn’t useful for him, becomes a contrite, sober member of the community, honored to take leadership as the High Priest, of course. This senior position in the community will suit him very well, thank you. He’ll be glad to have the C-suite—but can we speak in a bit more detail about the benefits? Oh, never mind, he is very holy, and grateful to be able to serve the community.
He has direct reports. Or students that he’s supposed to be training. Or assistants to his role. I mean, whatever.
Then Moses said to Aaron: “Come forward to the altar and sacrifice your sin offering and your burnt offering, making expiation for yourself and for the people; and sacrifice the people’s offering and make expiation for them, as God has commanded.” Aaron came forward to the altar and slaughtered his calf of sin offering. Aaron’s sons brought the blood to him; he dipped his finger in the blood and put it on the horns of the altar…Then he slaughtered the burnt offering. Aaron’s sons passed the blood to him, and he dashed it against all sides of the altar…He then brought forward the meal offering and, taking a handful of it, he turned it into smoke on the altar—in addition to the burnt offering of the morning. He slaughtered the ox and the ram, the people’s sacrifice of well-being. Aaron’s sons passed the blood to him—which he dashed against every side of the altar…
(Leviticus 9:7-12, condensed for space.)
When it’s time for him to execute, he does so: Flawlessly. People love him. His service is so powerful.
Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he stepped down after offering the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the offering of well-being.
Moses and Aaron then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of God appeared to all the people.
Fire came forth from before God and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces. (Leviticus 9:22-24)
But what about those students? The ones who are just shown holding bowls of blood in Ch 9? Sure, yes, there’s the argument to be made that one has to watch and learn before one can be ready for the main stage, and that everyone has their role: Yes.
But if Nadav and Avihu did something wrong—something horribly horribly wrong, something so out of the ordinary and such a violation of the holy that it lead to their deaths…
why didn’t they know how dangerous that was?
If they were still learning, still in training, why were the risks of their actions not made clearer to them?
Who failed them?
You see where I’m going here, don’t you.
Every community I know—my own, those of friends of other faiths, of friends in other worlds outside religion, etc. have this problem, but it feels particularly toxic in religious spaces. We consistently set up the people who are ostensibly supposed to be our mentees, our students, our protégés, our assistant pastors and our associate directors to be thrown under the bus.
We don’t give them the information that they need in order to function properly so that we can continue to shine. We play favorites with budgets, exemptions or assignments, maybe secretly hoping that the rising star who threatens us might get pushed out. We undermine their confidence, death by a thousand cuts style, so that they don’t realize that they’re actually smarter than we are and push for the change that will lead to the demise of our relevance. We abuse power—and then we gaslight and retaliate against anyone who dares point it out.
We make sure that those whose status is nearly the same as ours—those who could even ever take up the mantle from us—are standing, inert, holding bowls of blood, covered in blood, doing labor that is both invisible and intensive, disgusting, hard, and wildly undervalued while we go in front of the people, and they fall upon their faces.
Some people do this because they feel that this is their only way to hold on. That they must crush any challengers to the throne in order to remain on top.
Some people do this because they are energy vampires, because they receive a certain gratification from sucking the life out of those underneath them.
Some people do this because it was done to them. And they are angry and traumatized and determined to take it out somewhere.
Some people do it because they know they will never be as good as the person coming up, and it kills them, and so they lash out in that way (rather than finding the ways that they, themselves can shine).
Some people do it because they are, simply, racist. Or misogyinstic. Or ableist. Or homophobic or transphobic or some intersection of things.
Or because people speaking uncomfortable, inconvenient truths are rarely tolerated by those determined to maintain oppressive systems.
Or for so many other reasons.
Needless to say: None of them are defensible.
None of them are OK.
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by mentors—
well, it’s not a joke and it’s not an exaggeration.
By being “counseled out” of programs when their presence is no longer convenient; by having their ideas stolen, or shaped and mashed and crushed beyond recognition; by being emotionally abused into thinking that their constant abrogation of boundaries makes them “indispensable;” by being disciplined hard for a minor infraction the moment their observations around structural problems become too loud; by being lied to, manipulated gaslit, left hung out to dry or retaliated against about that misconduct or harassment or microagression claim; by being informed that everything was OK now, without actually being asked if everything was OK, now; by a steady barrage of small critiques—almost too small to note, any of them individually—about one’s talent and worth; by being made to feel unreasonable for asking for accommodations; by being left struggling under the weight of the sloshing bowls of blood; by being left—sometimes deliberately—without the information that they needed in order to survive.
We have to do better by those coming up behind us. It’s not a question.
You can’t pull up the ladder once you get up to a certain rung.
We must recognize that we are all in this together.
We must recognize that less trauma for everyone is a good thing!
That more talent, more perspectives, more wisdom, more radiant light shining is proof that the world is working better.
It’s not pie. Just like rights are not pie. Everything actually works better when everyone has them. This capitalist scarcity mentality inflicts harm every single day. It misleads people into thinking that there’s not enough for everyone, that if I have then it’s proof that you can’t have. As opposed to: let’s work together to create more for everyone.
A world in which more brilliant people get to shine and bring their talents to a world desperately in need of healing sounds.. better to me.
We can all shine and be gorgeous, radiant lights together.
We can bring the fire together—an offering of love. Or we can wait patiently, together, for the fire to come down.
But we are going to support those of the next generation to live, and to thrive.
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As Professor James Diamond noted, “Rashi continued to live for almost a decade after the decimation of French communities during the First Crusades in 1096. He certainly was aware of the painful episodes of Jewish parents murdering their own children [before killing themselves] rather than leaving them to face [torture, suffering, painful murder and/or] forced baptisms.” It’s one of the more agonizing facts of Jewish history, but it’s there, and likely impacted his reading of this text.
Thank you for this. Absolutely puts words to my experience in/being pushed out of academia
It's not pie... I love this statement. So often we igrnore "more" in order to create "more" and focus on what we feel is at risk of disappearing. Especially in our spiritual life, we must realize there is more... always more.
It's not pie.