Classic love stories often have tragedies at their core. Romeo and Juliet do not end well; neither do Anthony and Cleopatra. Misfortune often lurks at the heart of love, as we see in our Torah portion this week. Nadav and Avihu, at the moment of drawing close to God, are struck down, consumed by the fire.
Their deaths are part of a larger pattern that we see in the Torah. The tragedy of Nadav and Avihu occurs at a triumphal moment. The ordination of Aaron and his sons has just taken place. This sudden reversal – sadness at a peak moment – is paralleled in the haftorah. As David brings the ark back to Jerusalem, in his great moment of success, Uzzah is struck down trying to prevent the ark from falling (2 Samuel 6:6). Shortly after, David is dancing and his wife Michal sees him and thinks it is conduct unbecoming of a king, leading to a lasting estrangement. At the very moment of victory, there is defeat. The night the Temple of Solomon is dedicated, God resolved to destroy Jerusalem (Lev. R. 12:5). The first time Icarus takes flight, he melts his wings. The day Beowulf slays the dragon, he dies.
In life we find this dynamic constantly. Samuel Beckett received the Nobel Prize and his wife Suzanne’s reaction to the telegram has become legend: “What a catastrophe.” The marriage did not last. How often have people begun a tale of woe with, “Just as everything was going well…”
The deeper lesson of the Torah’s teaching is not that one must have tragedy at the very moment of triumph, but that everything contains its opposite. There cannot be a life without the struggles and anguish and pain that living inevitably brings. When the Torah says that Abraham was “blessed in all things” (Gen. 24:1), we might justly protest. After all, he left his home, endured famines, had domestic discord and strife with his children – how was he blessed in all things? But “All things” means not that Abraham never knew trouble, but that he was blessed to see every side of life, the light and the dark.
The rabbis tell us that Abraham and Sarah struck their own coins. On one side was the couple depicted when they were young and the other side when they were old. In other words, before they knew the lesson of the struggles of life and after they learned the lesson. Two sides, same coin.
The story of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu finds multiple interpretations in our tradition. Some are to the credit of the brothers and some to their discredit. Whatever their motivations or the precise nature of their sin, the deeper meaning of the event is a pattern that the Torah repeats: the moment that Aaron both becomes the High Priest and is bereaved, the moment Moses can see the promised land but must die, the moment David puts down Absalom’s rebellion but must confront the death of his child. The Torah’s uncompromising realism makes us confront the reality that life does not come unmixed, that although in the coming week in the prayer for the new month we ask for “prosperity and honor, a life free from shame and reproach” and many other beneficences, life is never frictionless. We demonstrate that knowledge in a central ceremony at our happiest moment.
When the bride and groom stand under the huppah, right before the marriage ceremony is completed, the groom breaks a glass. As the rabbis say, “In a place of joy there must be some trembling” (Ber 30b). We are reminded of the tragedies of our history and that life will not always be perfect. Nonetheless after the glass is broken everyone says, “Mazel Tov” because we affirm the conviction that love and faith are more enduring and powerful than the inevitable wounds of life.
Therefore, when we raise a glass, we do not toast to good fortune or blessedness or even health, but l’chaim – to life, which contains joy and pain, ecstasy and anguish – everything God has given us.
The writer is Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of David the Divided Heart. On Twitter: @rabbiwolpe.