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Thursday, February 25, 2010


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.


Anonymous said...


Simcha said...

Rabbi Rieser:
Did you ever experience a time when you almost dropped something and your body reacted with a spontaneous, instinctively, to catch this object?
Did you ever observe your kid close to falling and you automatically run to fetch the kid?
How is Uzza different than any human being with all their instincts?
I think God shows up as a very angry and ungrateful divine being.
Perhaps, our sages had not tried to explain Uzza’s death, but had simply lamented it because they tried to make God look good. Certainly, blaming the victim is not a very holly act anyway.
And, yes, since we cannot always find a reason for tragedy, I would also prefer it if our sages would find healing words of acceptance, so that we, today, would deal with grief the way it is. But what I found in the Talmud,is that there is very little emotion and feeling presented by the sages. They were only concerned with the exercise of pilpul for the sake of Shamayim )debate for the sake of heaven). What do you think?

Greetings, Simcha

Rabbi Louis Rieser said...

I think you are absolutely correct about our human instinct to respond. I cannot imagine Uzza or anyone else not reaching out if they saw such a precious and holy object at risk. I did not add my own thoughts to the post, but I think Uzza died because the Ark channeled great power – I often use the analogy of electricity – and Uzza was unprepared for handling that power. I don’t know that I would characterize God as angry or ungrateful; rather I believe Uzza died because he did not know how to handle the power he encountered.
Perhaps because I do not understand any wrong that Uzza committed I also don’t resonate to the sages seeking a place to assign blame. They could have modeled the way one laments a tragedy or finds a place of acceptance in the midst of tragic loss.
I do think the sages have a lot to teach about emotions, though not in a direct manner. As we read between the lines, allowing ourselves to enter into the stories we find the emotions, feelings and values they hold dear – but I seldom find it on the surface of their writings.
Thanks for raising these important issues. It pushes the conversation to deeper levels.
Rabbi Louis Rieser

Simcha said...

I am also thinking about the power of the anthropological term Mana, which defines the divine energy possessed in important people and sacred objects. We know this prohibition of touching certain leaders or objects among many indigenous people even today.
I totally agree with you that we may deal here with the inability to maintain the Godly energy. Of course, this brings us to Kabbalah and the idea of Kedusha that Jewish objects hold (Kadushin, Max). Yes, Uzza was probably zapped!

What is interesting is that Rabbi Yochanan mentions that Uzza was granted a place in the world to come. I am not sure what to make out of this. If the sages look for the wrong that Uzza committed, why would they place him as eternal as the Ark in the next world?

“It pushes the conversation to deeper levels” – is this something you are not interested for this blog?


Rabbi Louis Rieser said...

Hi Simcha
I absolutely appreciate your questions pushing the discussion to a deeper level. The conversation raises issues that either I had not considered or did not have the space to address in the original blog. So we get an opportunity to explore in different ways. Thanks for being part of the conversation.

I appreciate your adding the term “mana.” I have seen the term, but have not used it before. I went to Wikipedia for a definition: “In anthropological discourse, mana as a generalized concept has attained a significant amount of interest, often understood as a precursor to formal religion. It has commonly been interpreted as "the stuff of which magic is formed", as well as the substance of which souls are made.” I think it fits very well.

It has been a long time since I read Max Kadushim – so I wonder if you can say more about how you see his teaching in this context. I’ll see if I can find my copy of his writings here.

I do have a theory as to why Yohanan teaches that Uzza was granted a place in the world to come. It fits the notion that holy objects contain power and that they cannot be touched without proper preparation. If you come to close to the holy sphere without preparation – either by touching or by entering (think the High Priest and the Holy of Holies) – you are consumed by the holy. My guess is that contact with the holy transforms you and you are taken out of this world. It all sounds spooky, but it makes sense to me. If so, then Yohanan’s notion that Uzza is granted a place in the world to come is separate from the effort to find fault with him.

We have only a few instances of this kind of event in addition to Uzza that I can think of – and they are all somewhat weird. At Mt. Sinai the people are warned not to approach the mountain lest God “break out against them” (Ex 19:24) – the same word used in the story of Uzza. It could also explain the story of Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, who are consumed by the fire of the Lord, and the cryptic remark by Moses, “Through those near to me I show myself holy.” (Lev 10:3) The warning to Moses in this week’s portion that no man can see God’s face and live. (Ex 33:20). I suspect there are other instances I am not thinking of just now, but this is enough to mark a pattern.
Rabbi Louis Rieser

Simcha said...

The term of “mana” is also defined in one of my college text book; Cultural Anthropology, by Nanda and Warms, Thomson publication: “Religious power or energy that is concentrated in individuals or objects. Mana gives spiritual power, but it can also be dangerous, this is why belief in mana is often associated with elaborate system of taboos or prohibitions. Mana is like electricity.” This fits even better with our case.
Max Kadushim, The Rabbinic Mind, Global Academic Publication, Binghamton University, 2001, pp. 176-179.
He refers to the Torah scroll as holding the power of kedusha, which is holiness. This term parallels what anthropologists call mana. Kadushin and likewise Talmud Bavli, Megilla 26b rank the objects that Jews consider to have a kedusha in a hierarchical order of holiness. The Torah scroll is first, followed by the Sepharim (books), the bands that wrap the scroll, the ark, and lastly, the synagogue. The band is a tashmish kedusha (an article of holiness) of the Torah, but it outranks the holiness of the ark, which is also a tashmish kedusha. This, Kadushin explains, is because the band is closer to the Torah than the ark. Both are holy because they are in direct contact with the Torah. From this explanation we see that the synagogue is last, but is still considered to be holy in its own right.
Since an object with kedusha is endowed with a mystical power that is transmitted to other objects by direct contact, it would be reasonable to argue that when people kiss and touch the Torah scroll they might feel that the holiness could be absorbed by their hands. This is the way they can feel connected to God. The Last Kunteras also comments regarding touching the scroll with the hand and the transference of holiness and purity to the person;
“Since it is recognized that the one who kisses with his hand in the place he touches the scroll, it is acceptable to do so. This shows that by touching the scroll the impression of holiness is glued to the hand, and therefore he kisses there. And this is also everyone’s custom when they feel the tallit with their hand, for distracting the mind or when they move from their place, they kiss the hand. And the matter of the kiss is to connect to purity, and there is in it favoring the commandment”.
It is the perception that kedusha or the holiness would make the people holy as well. Just like the band which holds the scroll, if Jews touch the Torah scroll, its power could be transmitted to them. Here, the idea that the Torah scroll as a concrete object helps facilitate a connection between God’s holiness and the practitioner is convincing.
From this I can see a connection to what you are saying regarding the notion of having Uzza in the world to come; “The contact with the holy transforms you and you are taken out of this world”. Similarly, all the examples that you cited completely make sense to me as well and I think they all are connected. Thus, please note that there is no escape from the belief system of the other pagan cultures at the Biblical times.

“I absolutely appreciate your questions pushing the discussion to a deeper level”; I can see the limitations of blogs, as there is so much you can cover. I wonder why there is no response from others, and why not keep a discussion for a longer period of time? You guys are amazing to be able to keep these posts coming on such a high frequency…

I so deeply appreciate this learning with you.