I am haunted by the story. I can’t let it go, or rather it won’t let me go. This is what literature can do to you sometimes, great literature – the kind that tries to speak about how life is, in all its complexity and mystery, in all its unexpected moments of joy and pain, of sudden reversals of fortune, life in its shabbiness and its grandeur, the life that poets and novelists keep evoking and describing – arranging and re-arranging words on pages in the attempt to pierce the mystery of our being, the mystery of there being anything at all: it is the poets and the storytellers that keep reminding us that what makes human beings a unique aspect of the created universe is our capacity for language, for words, for using speech to communicate and to try to conjure up new ways of talking about who we are, what we are, why we are...
And this story in Leviticus, these few verses of an ancient text, seem to speak of something just out of our grasp. We feel that if we could really understand what is going on we’d hold in our hands, in our hearts, we’d hold in our consciousness, a moment of enlightenment. It we understood this text it would be like a revelation, a holy moment. We’d know the truth of something, how something really is and not just how it seems. We’d somehow know how the world really works – if we could but understand this simple story.
“And Nadav and Abihu, sons of Aaron, each took a fire-pan, and fire, and incense, and offered ‘strange fire’ before the Eternal, which they had not been instructed to do. And fire came forth from before the Eternal and consumed them and they died before the Eternal. And Moses said to Aaron: ‘This is what the Eternal says, these words: Through those near to Me, I will be sanctified; and before all the people I will be honoured’. And Aaron was silent.” (Leviticus 10: 1-3)
Two young men offer aysh zara – strange fire, alien fire, something that is burning and out of the ordinary, something unexpected and unpredicted and out of the range of what is known, something that runs counter to the rules set down from on high, from their parents and their God. They are not feeling constrained by what has to be, what should be done, what shouldn’t be done - there is a rebelliousness in them, a zeal, an enthusiasm, a passion – they want to connect with the divine in their own way, but what is it really that motivates them? Is it attention-seeking? Is it a prank? Is it anger at being part of a system that always tells them what to do, that demands obedience, that is filled with prohibitions and punishments and threats of more punishments? Is it a premeditated act, plotted together in secret for ages before? Or is it a sudden impulsive moment of dare-devilry – ‘I’ll do it if you do it, no you do it, no you do it, hell, let’s just do it...’
Who knows? – our storyteller isn’t going to tell us. Our storyteller is going to keep us dangling – for generation after generation – our storyteller knows that when they place this word next to that word, in this order, and create this sentence then that one, that we are going to be captivated till the end of days with a curiosity, with a desire to know, to understand, to delve beneath the surface of this brutal and dumbfounding story, to find out: why did they do it? Which is to say: why do any of us do the things that we do? What is the story we tell ourselves, or each other? What is the story we told our parents, or our siblings, that we tell our partners, or our lovers, or our teachers , or our friends – or whoever wanted to know: ‘why did you do that? How could you have done that? Couldn’t you see what would happen? Why did you do it?’
And we might have a story ready, or we might make one up, or we might have no words to offer – but that question ‘why?’ can have a dozen answers, a dozen so-called reasons, but they are only stories, more stories: ‘I did it because I was angry, I did because I was bored, I did it because I was tired, I did it because I was upset, or hurt; I did it without thinking, I did it because I thought you’d like it, or you’d be pleased with me, or you would love me, or you would stop loving me if I didn’t do it, I did it because it felt good, I did it because no-one was looking, or everyone was looking’... stories we make up, stories we believe in (or not), that try to answer that simple-sounding question: why did you do that?
Two young men offer aysh zara – strange fire, alien fire, something that is burning in them and it has to come out. And fire symbolises both what is creative and transformative – and what is destructive. And when these two men in this story offer their strange fire, and fieriness, there is no explanation, because no explanation is ever sufficient - because we are strangers to ourselves, aliens who think we know why we act but rarely take into account that actions are often prompted by the unconscious in us. We think we are rational and conscious and coolly calculating beings – but this story reminds us that this is just a fiction, another story, one we like to tell ourselves, a soothing fairytale of a story: ‘Oh, I did this because of that’, as if we were a mathematical formula, x plus y = z. I did z because of x and y. ‘I left him because he snored and always left the toilet seat up’. ‘I married her because she had beautiful eyes, and a father who was a millionaire.’ What a consoling fiction this is, that human motivation can be tracked down in this simple way, as if the mind and the heart and consciousness itself is just a refined computer-type programme waiting for us to de-code, or load up with more programmes that we can then act out. But what this short story reveals is that we are essentially a mystery: to ourselves, let alone to other people.
There were plenty of things I could have addressed this week, other than this nagging mysterious story, the one that won’t let me go. What about the sinking of the Titanic, 100 years ago? What an extraordinary story this has become in the British psyche: it’s become mythic, a story about class, and fate, and hubris and arrogance and bravery and cowardice and the randomness of who will live and who will die, and how the story the makers of that ship told about it in 1912 - and the captain and crew and passengers believed - that this was a ship that was unsinkable, what a story that was, what a fiction that was, how naive to believe in the stories we tell ourselves about how things are and have to be.
Or I could have addressed what’s happened to another storyteller, the grand old man of German letters, Nobel laureate Gunter Grass, 84 years old, for whom reading and writing – the habit of looking intensely at words – became the work of a lifetime, and now he’s been banned from entering Israel, to which he has a strong and loving bond, because he wrote a poem – in truth, not a very good poem – a poem in which he spoke about both Iran and Israel as having the potential capacity to act in ways “endangering/Our already fragile world peace”. Following which rather uncontroversial sentiment ,a huge storm of controversy has erupted around him – with knee-jerk reactions from the predictable sources : that Grass has voiced “deep-seated prejudice against the Jewish people” (i.e. he’s an anti-Semite) – that’s from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in the States; and from Netanyahu a helpful, diplomatic response that Grass is just an unreconstructed Nazi because he was drafted into the Waffen SS at the age of 16 towards the end of the War, and we aren’t going to take moral lessons from Germans anyway.
The power of words – they can explode in your face – a storyteller poet can offer his own alien fire and the next thing you know the wrath of the gods (or those who set themselves up in God’s place) falls upon him.
The power of words, of stories, of language – and who the stories are told to, and where they are told. What about the Habima theatre company of Israel, founded in 1905 and Israel’s oldest theatre group, who are due to visit London in May but are facing a boycott campaign? They perform all over Israel and they’ve done some performances in Ariel, in the West Bank; they have sponsorship from the government of Israel and a contractual obligation to go, but no actor is forced to perform there if their conscience dictates not to, and actors who choose not to face no sanctions from the company. They are due to perform their Hebrew language version of The Merchant of Venice, at the Globe during the London Shakespeare Festival. And as another storyteller Howard Jacobson has said in defence of their visit: "If there is one justification for art… it is that it proceeds from, and addresses, our unaligned humanity. Whoever would go to art with a mind made up on any subject misses the point of what art is for”. (Though I note that Jacobson has remained silent, as far as I know, about Grass).
Which stories are we allowed to hear? which poems are we allowed to read? which words are too strange, too alien, too fiery, too filled with burning indignation, too dangerous, to be offered up on the altar, in full view of the public?
In Leviticus, the story is told that something is offered, strange, alien, of burning intensity – and it is followed by death, and more words, as Moses tries to rationalise what has happened: he offers his own story, which you can take or leave. (It’s what you’d expect from a religious leader, a bit of pious gobbledygook to cover up the outrageous unpredictability of what life throws at us).
But the most eloquent response, the most poignant, the most pregnant with meaning and feeling is that of Aaron, who is suddenly a survivor: a survivor of the unaccountable way in which life unfolds, bringing death in its wake; and he stands there, in the presence of the non-rational, the awesome irruption of chaos into the order of the day, vayidom Aharon : and Aaron was silent.
And there is a gap in the text, a moment of suspended action: as we wait, as we join Aaron in his silence. Sometimes there are no words. Sometimes there is a moment when we realise that words are a cover-up, that there is something unutterable about life, underneath words, between words, and our storyteller gives us a glimpse into that larger silence in which we are held, beyond language, from which we have come and into which we will go. And we stare - with Aaron, through Aaron - into the abyss. And we hear the silence. And it is heartbreaking, this silence.
And it is also, potentially, heart-mending, this silence.
But that’s another story.
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, April 14th, 2012]