When I was a kid, we divided up Parshiot into categories that were theologically unsophisticated, but – at least to us – utterly obvious. The key categories included:
This week’s parsha, Bamidbar, in which Moses is given a process with which to develop the protocols for developing a census in the desert, would have fallen into the wasteland between the child categories of the begats and the borings. The Parsha begins:
“On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the Exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying: Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head….”
And gosh darnit, that’s what happens for several pages.
Since this is Shabbat yaldanu, the Sabbath of our children, a moment when we take a moment to value our children, as well as the education they are receiving here, it’s seems appropriate to ask: What does a child absorb from these lists of names?
The draft of my answer is: not the list of names, but an interruption halfway through the narrative.
What is this tear in the narrative? A summary of the story of Nadav and Abihu, two of Aaron’s sons, about whom we know little other than the fact of their sudden and tragic death. Their story is told earlier in the Torah, but it is the sudden eruption of this tale – between the listing of the enrollments of the house of Israel, and the description of the duties of the house of Levi – that interests me.
“These were the names of Aaron’s sons: Nadav, the first-born, and Abihu, Eleazar and Itamar; those were the names of Aaron’s sons, the anointed priests who were ordained for priesthood. But Nadav and Abihu died by the will of the Lord, when they offered alien fire before the lord in the wilderness of Sinai…”
Imagine for a moment that the parsha is a Shabbes conversation, two families with adults and children sitting down over dinner. The adults are talking about adult matters, perhaps the equivalent in boringness, at least for kids, of lists of begats. The adults discuss whether they should get Marvin windows, say, or perhaps something a bit more crafty, then someone interjects – oh, did you hear about the Klein’s and that terrible plane accident; they shouldn’t have flown that Cesna by themselves – and then you go back to mortgages and the refinance.
What does a kid pick out in this long conversation? They hear the change in tone, the place where the story reveals its complex and dynamic lessons. This parsha is a long, adult conversation, but a kid is grabbed by this change in tone. Here is the place a child, struggling to understand the text, the community, and their place in it, wants to climb through.
And I think further about Aaron’s sons…I imagine them as 12-year-old boys, Levitical pre-teens who know just enough to be dangerous. They know that something unbelieavably important is going on in the tabernacle, and yet all they see around them is adults walking around the camp with clipboards, like camp counselors counting suitcases after the buses leave, counting and re-counting the sons of the tribes.
Abihu and Nadav, pulled toward the tabernacle by the desire to know more, bored by the orderings all around them, and wanting to emulate the priestly actions they have been watching so carefully, want to offer their own sacrifice. They are a little bit mystical, a little bit naughty, a bit too big for their britches. They think the world revolves around them. They reject the community’s thirst for order and stumble into the epicenter of divine dynamism with tragic results.
This is what a kid, reading this parsha carefully, might hear. And what do they learn? An ambiguous lesson, as most of our lessons to our kids are when it comes to independence: Emulate us, be creative, make your own fire in your own way; but don’t make it too hot, or too strange.
One final thought. I note in myself, as an adult still struggling to understand the text as a 42-year-old, and as a parent trying to explain it to my kids, my increasing pull toward the begats and the borings. If the Bible, as life itself, can be seen as a yin-yang of order and chaos, I note the gradual shift in myself toward an appreciation of genealogy, the uncontaminated transmission of ideas and values, the pleasure of order and routine, just as I notice my kids’ increasing fascination with variations of what could be called the Yuckies – the chaos, exceptionalism, danger and that lead to whatever their equivalent is of leprosy, banishment, and disappearance. Of course the Yuckies is where the fun is, as Bruce Springsteen reminds us in his otherwise incomprehensible song about being told not to look at the sun, even thought that’s where the fun is.
The lesson for me, then, after all is said and done, is to understand how the begats, the borings and the yuckies all work together, to ground myself in the facts and lists that make a community function, but be aware – and also to celebrate – the dynamism and value of the Yuckies.