This week's Torah portion, Shemini, should be the most joyful portion in the entire Chumash. When G-d created the world, G-d made space for humanity, G-d's cherished, beloved child. And now, G-d's children complete the building of the mishkan and return the favor, making a space for G-d.
The scene is unspeakably powerful and poignant. Aaron the Kohen places an offering on the altar, and a divine flame issues from the Holy of Holies to consume it. That flame remains alight in the Tabernacle and then the Temple for the next thousand years. G-d and humanity in partnership.
But the day is scarred by tragedy. The two young leaders, Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, have entered the Holy of Holies on their own volition. When the flame emerges to consume the offering, they are caught directly in the beam and, unprepared and unready for the full power of the divine energy, die.
Nothing is as devastating as the loss of a child. The nation stands aghast as the culmination of the Exodus, the inauguration of the Tabernacle, dissolves into tragedy. Moses speaks to his devastated brother. I knew that bringing G-d's presence into the camp came with great risk: I had thought that you and I were the ones who were in jeopardy and we were prepared to pay the price if needed. But your sons were holier than us.
Why? Why did the two young men enter into the very center of the divine nexus, the heart of the nuclear reactor of G-d's holiness exactly when it powered up? Why do the young ignore boundaries, imagine themselves invulnerable, rebel at the worst possible moment?
Could the outcome have been different? Did Moses and Aaron warn the young priests sufficiently, nurture them, guide them, prepare them enough?
Alas, there are no answers. But the effect of this episode is powerful. Our children will surpass us. They will create a world that we will never know. But for as long as we share life together, we must nurture them, remind them of how precious they are, not try to shield them from life - for we cannot - but try to mediate and advise gently and lovingly even if they push us away.
The Rabbis teach that the two young priests, Nadav and Avihu, return in spirit to infuse our youth with zeal and passion. Mordechai Anielowitz, the leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, whose start we commemorate in Yom HaShoah, was just 24. I have no doubt that Nadav and Avihu were with him as he stepped into the iron furnace of defiance against the army of night that had devastated the world. I have no doubt that Nadav and Avihu were with Anna Frank, who kept the light of hope and faith burning in the secret annex. She was just 15. And with Hannah Senesh, heroism and valor beyond imagining, who parachuted into the inferno at 23.
Love them, nurture them, cherish them even as they surpass us. At their births, they took our breath away. And as they grow and go forward in ways that we never imagined, do not be afraid to be led by them, to learn from them.
The Rebbe of the Warsaw ghetto, Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, left a book behind hidden in an urn that was found in the ashes. The name of the book was the Aish Kodesh, the Holy Flame. His final prayer, his final appeal to G-d was to immerse himself in G-d's light, beyond all sorrow. May we walk the road of love, compassion and hope as we nurture our precious children and are nurtured by them with light.