By Rabbi David Hartley Mark
I am Kevudah, the “honored one,” wife of Eleazar, Aaron’s third son—but his eldest, now that Nadav and Avihu are dead, killed by the hand of God—the flames of God, I mean. They offered “strange fire”—some mistake in preparing the incense, we believe, as well as guilty of taking a drop of mead prior to the service—we will never know for sure, since the two young men—boys, really—were totally immolated by God’s fire. Just as they were about to wave their incense-pans, too. Horrible, horrible way to die, at the hands of the God we are commanded to love. And Who loves us. I wonder.
It is impossible to describe the effect their deaths have had on our family: their mother, my mother-in-law, Elisheva—you will not find her or even her name mentioned in your Holy Torah, Stranger (she is a woman, and therefore unworthy)—has gone into complete isolation in the Black Tent of Isolation, wearing black, totally given up to her mourning, for her first- and second-born sons. Her faith is gone. Her brother-in-law Moses visits her daily to offer her prayer and comfort through the door of the Tent, but she will not see him.
Aaron, our High Priest, the dead boys’ father and my father-in-law, goes about his business in silence. He offers sacrifices to the God who slew his sons like cattle. He visits the Israelites who quarrel, and makes peace, or tries to, between them. But the light of happiness is gone from his eyes; it vanished on the day that God took his boys.
And what of Eleazar and Itamar, my husband and brother-in-law, the surviving sons and brothers of the Dead Priests Nadav and Avihu? Aaron will not speak to me—why should he talk to a mere woman, and his daughter-in-law, at that?—but Aaron has spoken to Eleazar, and Eleazar passed the message along to me:
“Father wants us to have a baby. A boy baby. To replace Nadav and Avihu.”
“How does he know we are able to have a baby?”
“God has told him. Father Aaron is a prophet. And Uncle Moses has verified it, as well.”
“What if it’s a girl? I would love a girl….”
“Kevudah, do you hearken to the voice of me, Eleazar, your husband and master? It will be a boy. A boy, for the Lord God of Hosts has spoken it.”
And so I was made pregnant. At first, I did not like the feeling: the morning sickness, needing to leave the tent so often, the changes in my body…. But the wise women and the doulas of the tribe came to see me, knowing I was only fifteen, and that this was my first child, grandchild of the great Aaron, and grand-nephew of Rabbi Moses. For the elders and the rest of the men, I was less a person than a treasure-vessel, but the women handled me tenderly, keeping the men away. Which was fine: men are such idiots where babies are concerned, anyway.
It was only in the late evenings, when it was hard for me to sleep, and Eleazar would pound and pound at me with questions: “Are you eating enough, Kevvy? What did Sarah-Bracha the Doula say? Did the baby move at all? Can I feel? Do you need another pillow? This son of mine must be prepared to lift enormous cows, sheep, goats! Kevvy, why do you turn away? I am your husband and master! Kevvy, please…!”
One would have thought he was having the baby, and not me. I began to grow nervous: what if I lost the baby? Would I be banished from the tribe? Would they examine my background, and find that I had an Edomite great-grandmother? O God….
Which is why I awoke one morning, and, feeling a pimple on my upper lip, and wishing to cover it with face-powder before the midwives arrived—I still had enough self-respect to wish to do that—I saw my face in the polished bronze mirror. And sat, staring.
My face was covered—and, after ripping open my blouse, I saw my chest and entire body—with white scales. They itched.
I could only remember the verses that Aaron himself had read to us Israelites in assembly, just the previous week:
“When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest, or to one of his sons, the priests. The priest shall examine the infection…if hair in the infected patch has turned white and the infection appears to be deeper than the skin…it is a leprous infection; when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce [the victim] impure” (Lev. 13:2-3).
I was in shock: how could this happen to me? How could the same God who killed Nadav and Avihu afflict me, innocent me, as well? Was I guilty for wishing my husband Eleazar to be quiet and let me sleep, last night? Was I stricken for wishing secretly to bear a girl-child? Was I jealous of my mother-in-law Elisheva for shutting herself away from this Man’s World? Was I….
Suddenly, I felt faint; I rose from my sleeping mat, staggered a couple of steps, felt a wetness between my legs…. I stumbled to the door-flap of my tent, and collapsed. I reached down; my hand came away bloody. A teenage boy was passing by, whistling. I waved my bloody hand at him: he startled back, but came over quickly.
“Help you, Missus?” he said, looking worried.
“Yes,” I said, through dry lips, “Go to—to—the Tent of Meeting. Fetch me Aaron—Eleazar—Itamar. Or any of the Levites. Go—go quickly!”
My head was spinning; I passed out.