Parashat Shemini – Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47

By Cantor David E. Reinwald

In the second chapter of this portion, chapter 10 of Leviticus, just three verses spell out the actions and extreme consequences of Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron.  It is amazing that a story of such extremes is given such little time and attention in the text.  We learn that “Aaron was silent” at the end of the third verse, and we can only continue to search for glimpses of Aaron’s grief in the chapters which are to follow.

But, let me turn my attention back to Nadab and Abihu.  Their actions made me question what exactly is “alien fire”?  What does it mean to turn tradition on its head, or to, moreover, create innovation which truly is not seen by those surrounding as innovative?  Are these acts which ultimately are hurtful to the community, and do they have a lasting negative impact on the one who brings forth this offering?  In the case of Aaron’s sons, we need to press no more on this last question, as we know they immediately were given the ultimate punishment of their own lives.  But, what about today?

I am drawn to a story that appeared in the news only days ago, and at the time of my writing this d’var Torah, the so-called “Reverend” Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church lie deathly ill.  Within the past few days, I have seen quite a few of my friends and acquaintances, as well as a few notable celebrities, comment on the situation of this man who has devoted his life to vicious homophobia and outright hatred.  He has committed atrocious acts of not only disturbing the peace, but disturbing individual family’s peace at times when they were already completely broken inside, having just lost a loved one.

Phelps’ “church” (and I put this in quotes, because many note that the church has one and only one mission—to spread such hatred, also with its members being mainly other members of the Phelps family) has done no good, and yet, in their own eyes, somehow they find a way to rationalize their irrational and hateful actions.  This is their own “alien fire.”  It is ‘alien’ to those around them who see it as benefitting no one, not even themselves, and ‘fire’ in its destructiveness, tearing away at the humanity of its targets.  I need not ask if this ‘alien fire’ will ultimately self-destruct the Phelps family.  It already has, with many of Fred Phelps’ children and relatives choosing to abandon the family and its actions.

Within the past few days, the son of Fred Phelps spoke openly about his father’s condition, and the fact that he was barred from seeing his father, being one of the family members to walk away from the family.  This son is now an outspoken advocate for tolerance.  I have seen many others, the notable and my own friends, who have posted to social media noting that they will not rejoice in the imminent death of Fred Phelps.  There is nothing to celebrate in the loss of life, despite what we just seemed to experience and understand from the joy we just shouted repeatedly this weekend to the ridding of Shushan of Haman and his sons.

A friend of mine reported that some from the LGBT community will now go and picket Fred Phelps’ own funeral, exactly as he and his clan disgustingly have done countless times in the past for soldiers killed in action, as well as notably at the funeral of Matthew Shepard.  For me, I cannot lie and say I do not have an initial feeling that this is somehow well-deserved.  As a member of the LGBT community, I personally feel the strife that the Phelps clan has caused.  It is unatonable.

And yet, my moral dilemma is that I cannot stamp this as a situation worthy of “an eye for an eye.”  Two wrongs will never make a right.  I think the response of the LGBT and the Jewish community does outwardly represent the values that we hold. The best and most upstanding action would not be to repeat the actions of our enemies.  Fred Phelps has already set forth his alien fire.  It speaks for itself.  As he now dies a lonely death, I hold faith that he will be aptly judged in the eyes of God.


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