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Strange Fire


I’m taking a break from my own set of Passover rituals – tying ribbons and rubber bands around kitchen cabinet knobs that one is not to use during the next 8 days – to send these words about the upcoming Torah portion (shemini/eighth). It can be summarized as follows:

1.  As commanded, Aaron slaughters, then offers up, a whole host of animals on his behalf and then on behalf of the community. When all the sweet smells are going up to God, Aaron & Moses bless the assembled multitude, God sends forth fire to consume the offerings on the altar, and the people fall on their faces, a tad freaked out.

2. Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu take their fire pans, put fire in them and top them off with incense. We are told that they offer up strange fire in their pans, fire not allowed them — and whoosh! Fire comes forth from God, consuming them just as it had the sacrifices. Aaron is forbidden from mourning this terrible turn of events. His next 2 sons are instructed to carry on as if nothing has happened.

3. Without skipping a beat, the laws of kashrut are handed down, verse after verse of instruction on cud-chewing and cleft-hooved animals, fishy fins and scales, swarming abominations and unclean morsels (and nothing banning the milk & meat combination that makes cheeseburgers verboten.)

What is a poet to do with all this? The picturesque laws of keeping kosher were appealing, but in the end, the incident with the brothers won out, strange fire being the very definition of art: all that is wildly human and decidedly not precise. In my poem On The Eighth Day, I rely on Volta and Curie (among others) to bring us to the 8th day, that day beyond the original cycle of creation. I tried to imagine God as over-protective parent (think: smothering), dedicated to showing us the error of our ways before it’s too late (think: scolding). Strange fire? Here’s a little zetz from the universe. We’ve been playing catch-us-if-you-can ever since.

p.s. This poem, in slightly revised form appeared originally in Smartish Pace, a fine literary journal.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. 04/08/2010 10:09 pm

    I totally agree with your cousins, your tattoo is VERY COOL. I’ll be honest, I don’t know much about the Jewish faith aside from what I’ve read. I don’t personally know any Jewish people (yes, I’m uncultured and from a tiny town) but when I saw your tattoo I thought, “Is that allowed?”

    Your post was very enlightening. And I really enjoyed the meaning hidden beneath the ink, so to speak.

    I’m glad you commented on my blog because now I’ve found your blog and will be reading it from now on!

    • sue swartz permalink*
      04/09/2010 8:47 am

      Well, aren’t you sweet? We can thank SheWrites for this introduction. I hope that you learn something about what Judaism means for this particular Jew. Just keep in mind that we are a diverse and contradictory people and I speak for no one but myself.

      As for whether a tattoo is “allowed”, that’s a topic for another post. If you want to read more about the beginnings of all this, check out this early post.

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