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Life Is Unfair

A haftorah of small transgressions and sudden death

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Mary Pickford in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. (WikiCommons)

This week, the biblical double helix that is the parasha and the haftorah provides us with two tales of young men struck down for inappropriate conduct.

In Leviticus, Aaron’s sons are put to death for being creative with their burnt offerings. “And Aaron’s sons,” reads the parasha, “Nadab and Abihu, each took his pan, put fire in them, and placed incense upon it, and they brought before the Lord foreign fire, which He had not commanded them. And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.”

While we moderns may judge the punishment as a tad severe—the boys, after all, were quite possibly guilty of nothing more grievous than fulfilling their priestly duties with a bit more zeal than is called for—it makes perfect sense in the context of the time’s rigid rituals. A cohen should know better than to mess with foreign fire.

The haftorah, on the other hand, draws us into murkier moral territory. As King David’s crew is transporting the Ark of the Covenant, a terrible accident occurs.

“And they set the ark of God upon a new cart,” it reads, “and they carried it from the house of Avinadav that was on the hill; and Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Avinadav, drove the new cart. … And they came to Goren-nachon, and Uzzah put forth [his hand] to the ark of God, and grasped hold of it, for the oxen swayed it. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him down there for his error; and there he died by the ark of God.”

What, we may be forgiven for asking, was poor Uzzah’s sin? Seeing the holiest relic about to topple, the alert young man lent a steadying hand, thinking, perhaps, that were the ark to fall, many more men would have no choice but to touch it so as to lift it back up onto the cart.

Generations of commentators have addressed these two grim stories, trying to find a workable explanation for the deaths of Nadab, Abihu, and Uzzah. Aaron’s sons, argued the Tanna Rabbi Ishmael, were struck down for being drunk in the Temple. And Uzzah, some scholars argued, may himself be innocent, but he died because of King David’s decision to transport the ark atop a cart rather than have it carried on the shoulders of Levites as he’d done before. No matter what the theological justification, however, the simple explanation remains unchanged: God did what God wanted to do because God is above morality and beyond explanation. We may require reasons, but He does not.

What lesson, then, might we extract from these seemingly senseless slayings?

A crucial one: Life is unfair.

It’s a lesson we’re constantly at risk of forgetting. Somewhere between Dr. Spock and Mr. Spock, between our drive to validate emotions and our quest to master reason, we seem to have willfully denied the fundamental truth of our existence—namely, that we live in a universe that is neither just nor orderly.

When we are younger, this cosmic senselessness hits us hard. With a child’s innate sense of fairness we rage at the world, trying to understand how bad things happen to good people, how the wicked sometimes triumph over the pure, how some go hungry while others gorge. Growing up, we sublimate these raw fears. We understand that injustice is innate but also that it is our duty to do whatever we can to eradicate as much of it as possible. This is how we become responsible, morally committed adults.

A court decision in Massachusetts this week, however, called this logic into question. It charged nine teenagers with bullying a classmate, Phoebe Prince, who ended up taking her own life in January of this year. The concrete details of the case are still unclear—as of this writing, no report specified precisely what the nine did to Prince besides relentlessly and repeatedly calling her derogatory names—and so I’m reluctant to address it directly. But witnessing a bullying case fall under the purview of the criminal justice system makes me cringe. To be clear, I do not doubt for a moment that bullying is a serious issue, one made more resonant and disturbing by the ubiquity of social media. Nor do I deny the scope of the challenge facing parents and educators as they struggle to deal with this prevalent problem. But unless there is serious bodily harm or a threat thereof, calling in the cops strikes me as thoroughly counterproductive.

The schoolyard, as most of us may remember, is a perfect microcosm. It is also the place where most of us first encounter the grandeur of inequity. When I was in the fourth grade, a gauche comment I’d made led to a prolonged and oftentimes vicious campaign of taunts and harassment. Having never seen that side of life before, I ran to my parents, weepy and confused. They couldn’t be more clear.

“Life is unfair,” they said. “Deal with it.”

In today’s child-centric world, when parenting often turns into something of a competitive sport, such a terse response would probably come across as insensitive and insufficient. And, as a child, it took me a long while to understand just what they meant. But when I did, I went back to the schoolyard and dealt with it, knuckles and all. I got tough, and it didn’t take long for the bullying to stop and for my self-esteem to skyrocket. My parents realized that my predicament was neither rational nor just, and rather than talk it through or involve the school they dispatched me to fight my own fight. When I did, and when I won, I learned not just about self-defense, but about self-worth as well.

As we deal with bullying, then, it is probably advisable to advocate for increased vigilance on behalf of teachers and parents and take whatever steps we can to make schools a safe and welcoming environment.

But an equally important lesson lies in this week’s parasha and haftorah: Life is unfair, but we love it anyway, or perhaps we even love it because it is unfair. After all, a life strictly regulated by rules, a life of perfect causality and order and reason, such a life wouldn’t be much fun at all.

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Good piece but 1 thing your article did not address is who or how is fair or unfairness defined! One persons victory is another’s defeat.
It’s relative or so it would appear. However the torah rules otherwise.
Rather than glibly concluding ‘life is unfair’ would this rationale not apply – under talmudic values deviating from g-ds way results in (bad) things that occur. That’s the ‘unfair’ part.

Dear Charlie,

Thank you for your thoughtful comment. But this week’s parasha and haftorah, I think, are interesting precisely because they deviate from the usual logic. All three young men — Aaron’s sons and King David’s servant Uzzah — are struck down for very minor infractions. Uzzah, in particular, is blameless; his death, most commentators agree, is designed as a punishment to King David, who then torments himself with the knowledge of having brought about the innocent man’s death. What both stories highlight, however, is that God’s will, being unknowable and transcendent to human morality, is above such notions as justice and fairness. It just is. This, I believe, is one of the truly awesome things about Judaism, the interplay of the will of man with the will of God. Were it as simple as following the straight path and reaching salvation, it wouldn’t be nearly as profound…
Thanks again for writing,

Aimee says:

Interesting article – but I have to vociferously disagree with your characterization of the Phoebe Prince case (however tangential it is to your main point) as a run-of-the-mill bullying problem innappropriate for the criminal justice system. In fact, the very term “bullying” diminishes and trivializes the issue. Her assailants were not accused of “calling her derogatory names” – in fact they were charged with criminal harassment, stalking, and statutory rape.

The Uzzah/David connection aside, I think asking a 15-year-old child to “just deal” with being stalked and harassed since, after all, “life isn’t fair” is completely inappropriate and exactly the opposite message we should want to send to our children – ANY children. If, as adults, we were being followed home from work every day, physically threatened and harassed, we would expect the criminal justice system to intercede – why should a child expect anything less?

rivka says:

You suggest that teenagers in the same predicament as Phoebe might be well served by fighting fire with fire. Easier said than done. Especially for someone, say, foreign, female, and sensitive by nature. I have walked in those shoes, and believe me, psychological violence can be paralyzing. (BTW, at least according to The NY Times investigation, there were threats of physical violence as well as statutory rape.) Yes, life is unfair and blank happens. But as Rabbi Hillel taught us: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary.”

Bill says:

This is a fascinating piece. I have always been troubled by both these stories and the lesson that life is unfair seems concise and accurate. It is a reminder to me both as an individual and as a parent that we cannot control or master everything in this world and that events occur that are patently unfair. I am less in agreement with your point about the bullying and whether it should fall under the criminal justice system. I live in Massachusetts and the newspapers have been filled the alleged details of this case. If only half the details are true, there was a systematic campaign by a fairly large number of powerful students to ostracize and yes, harm this child. What was happening to her could not have been solved with a fistfight on the playground. My nephew was recently the victim of similar (but less serious) bullying campaign. It took police intervention to get the school to act and to put an end to it. While life is unfair it is also incumbent upon us to protect the weak, to seek justice, and to prevent such abuses in the future.

Ehrman says:

Is the lesson to be learned from the deaths of Nadav and Avihu and of Uzzah that life is unfair? Or isn’t it that we are responsible for our actions and have to pay the consequences or reap the rewards for violating or observing God’s commandments? Do we really believe that God is playing dice with the universe, or is there a logic that explains the theodicy, a logic that escapes us? The book of Job addresses this age old question, but Judaism’s bottom line answer is that we live our lives according to God’s wishes as he instructs us through the Torah, but the rewards are often not given in this world, a world of Sheker, of Lies, but in the eternal world, the world of Emet, of Truth.In that world we will begin to understand the fairness of God’s actions,

“we live in a universe that is neither just nor orderly.”

In my almost 50 years of life I have learned to accept the above statement as a natural part of our earthly existence. All the time- management-7-Habits-Of-Highly-Successful-People wisdom can’t guarentee that everything’s gonna be alright.

Your post-modern interpretation is interesting, but what lesson was the text’s author trying to teach us? I think we’re supposed to contrast Nadav and Avihu’s unsuccessful innovation with the successful innovation of Aaron and his remaining sons a little later on in the same parsha – when they are challenged by Moshe as to why they didn’t properly consume the sacrifices, Aaron offers a logical explanation that Moshe accepts. I think the Torah contrasts these stories to teach us that innovation is welcome, but only if it stems from humility rather than from haughtiness.

susan says:

After attending my nephew’s Bar Mitzvah last weekend where he had to deal with these horrific torah and haftorah portions I watched Bill Maher’s “Religulous”, a movie where he basically ridicules organized religion and was greatful that Maher didn’t know about the fate of Aaron’s son’s and Uzzah.


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Life Is Unfair

A haftorah of small transgressions and sudden death

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