Sometimes people do the right thing and disaster follows. It is disturbing and confounding, neither fair nor just. And yet it happens. In the aftermath there is a desire to find a reason, to bring understanding to that which is beyond understanding. Sadly, the tendency is often to find a way to assign fault, and that, in my opinion, often compounds the tragedy.
The tragic story of Uzza, found in 2 Samuel 6:3-8 and in I Chronicles 8:7-11, is one example. As a result of fighting between the Israelites and the Philistines the Ark remained in the home of Abinadab, who cared for it for 20 years. David came to move the Ark to Jerusalem. They built an ox cart which was driven by Ahio and Uzza the sons of Abinadab. They placed the Ark on the cart and headed toward Jerusalem. Tragedy happened along the way. “By the threshing floor of Nacon, the oxen stumbled and Uzza reached out to steady the Ark. Adonai was angered and God struck him there for his error (Hebrew uncertain) and he died there alongside the Ark.” (II Samuel 6:6-7)
The death angered David, but it also made him afraid. He renamed the site “Peretz-Uzza”, the place of the strike against Uzza, but was afraid to move the Ark any further. He stored the Ark in the home of Obed-edom until he received a sign that it was safe to move it to Jerusalem.
Uzza’s death cries out for an explanation, but this is dangerous ground. Consider the motivation behind the search for an explanation. Is it to understand, offer comfort or to fix blame?
Four explanations by the sages concerning Uzza’s death can be found on Sotah 35a.
The first asserts that Uzza was punished for lack of knowledge. He should have known, the Gemara asserts, that the Ark takes care of itself. The story is a bit complex.
“"The Holy One said to Uzza, the Ark [when it crossed over the Jordan River into the Land of Israel] carried those who would have carried it, don’t you think it can bear its own weight.”
According to the account in Joshua 4, as the people prepared to enter the Land of Israel the Cohanim carried the Ark into the middle of the Jordan River. The waters split and the people crossed into Israel on dry land (haven’t we heard this story before?) When the waters closed after them the Cohanim remained on the Jordan side of the river. The text reads: ““When all the people finished crossing, then the Ark crossed with the Cohanim before the people” (Joshua 4:11), meaning the Ark carried the Cohanim rather than being carried by them. The sages claim that Uzza should have known from this very public miracle that the Ark had the power to care for itself. While his act looks responsible to our eyes, in reality it was an act of ignorance or worse.
The second accuses Uzza of even worse sins. Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Eleazar split on their opinions, one accusing him of neglect, other accusing him of relieving himself in front of the Ark. They ground their opinions on their reading of the Hebrew word, shal, which is of uncertain meaning. One tradition translates it to mean that Uzza erred, and they raise his error to the n-th degree.
Both of these approaches place the blame on Uzza. Despite what looks like an act of caring and concern, they assert, he really brought disgrace to God and the Ark.
The third explanation, also recorded in the name of Rabbi Yohanan, swings to the other side, not assessing blame, but noting a positive outcome.
“Rabbi Yohanan taught, “Uzza entered the World to Come, since it says [he was] “by the Ark of God.” Just as the Ark exists forever, so will Uzza in the World to Come.”
Here there is no attempt to assign blame. Rabbi Yohanan here assumes that for his positive, if misguided, action, Uzza earned a place in the world to come. It is the most comforting of the explanations offered by the sages.
The last explanation again seeks to assign blame, but now looks for another source. The text in 2 Samuel notes that David became very angry following Uzza’s death. Rabbi Eleazer builds a pun on the Hebrew to turn this tale back on David. The Hebrew asserts that David “yichar”, meaning he was burning up over this offence. Rabbi Eleazer envisions the moment saying, “his face turned black as a burned cake.” His pun turns the meaning of the Biblical text; David is no longer angry but stricken. The Gemara goes on to ask why he was punished and find that it was David, not Uzza, who was truly at fault. While the elaborate details of David’s sin will lead us astray, the thrust of this explanation is clear. Uzza is the unfortunate and inadvertent victim of David’s error.
I do not like any of these explanations, but I find the impulse behind them familiar. When an airline crash occurs, we wonder if it is pilot error, the result of sloppy maintenance, or an act of God. When a tsunami hits we wonder if it was inevitable or if there should have been earlier and clearer warnings. When tragedy strikes we hope for some path towards understanding.
Earlier I warned that we need to consider our motivation for seeking such explanations. Are we searching for understanding, comfort, or blame? No one could object if the goal is to seek understanding in order to prevent future tragedies. It is certainly a worthy goal to provide comfort for the bereaved. But if the goal is to assign blame, beware.
I believe we often seek to assign blame as a way to avoid accepting that our world is sometimes random, that there are events that defy our understanding. It is easier to scapegoat a person, any person, than to admit that our sometimes scary universe is beyond our understanding.
I wish our sages had not tried to explain Uzza’s death, but had simply lamented it. I wish that instead of trying to understand what defies understanding they had offered a way to live with the unsettling grief that accompanies tragedy.