As his career blossomed, so did Erik, now Harry’s, bravado. He was a small man with huge daring. At times he wasn’t as much a magician as he was a stunt man, dangling stories above crowds as he escaped straightjackets, or submerged himself in the water torture chamber. He’d be handcuffed and stuffed into a milkcan, only to emerge cuff-less, arms open in triumph.
Now, while magicians notoriously do not reveal their secrets, any casual magic lover knows that behind every magic trick or stunt, there’s years of preparation. There’s a science to magic tricks; illusions to create, mechanisms to invent. Houdini was no exception. He would note that “my brain is the key that sets me free.” Indeed, most magicians regard their craft as an unrecognized branch of Science. The performance is the thing that makes it seem mystical.
Houdini famously died by a ruptured appendix. What caused its rupture has been long debated. You see, s couple of days prior to his death, Houdini had received five punches to his stomach. Why? Well, Houdini had recently boasted he could take any punch to the stomach. When a student questioned him on this and delivered the punches without warning, Houdini was injured. Houdini even admitted that had he been able to ready himself, he could have withstood the blow. Doctors are split on whether these punches could have caused his appendix to rupture, but they certainly didn’t help. In the end, despite all his death defying stunts, something as common as appendicitis and, possibly, a few punches to the stomach, are what took Houdini’s life.
Houdini came to mind as I read this week’s Torah portion, Shemini. The beginning of the portion is rather prescriptive. It’s a step by step account of how Aaron and his sons scrupulously follow Moses' instructions and offer burnt sacrifices to God. But then, something crazy happens.
After days and days of preparation, after verse after verse of clear and precise instruction, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, seemingly on a whim, grab their fire pans, create some sort of weird fire and offer it to God. The Hebrew is “aish zarah” and weird or alien fire.
God, who has a very precise Amazon wishlist, and does not believe in regifting, is not happy with the offering. Nadav and Avihu are zapped dead immediately.
The whole episode is puzzling and frightening; maddening and mystifying. Aaron their father, and the high priest, is dumbstruck, silenced by what happened. After a very loaded pause, he moves forward with his responsibilities.
You can read the commentary (there’s a lot of it) on what happened. The rabbis’ major hunch is that Nadav and Avihu might have been trained in the intricacies of the ritual, but they were not emotionally ready to take it on. The rabbis describe them as haughty and arrogant, anxious to be in the limelight and steal the spotlight from Moses and Aaron. The bold and rash behavior is what got the best of them.
Houdini’s story is a bit different. He knew the value of readiness, of checking your body, your mind and your circumstances before taking action. His demise (or at least, the incident that exposed his ailment) came from someone else, who’s brazenness drove them to reckless action. The guy who sucker punched Houdini did not know the value of readiness.
Despite a clinical sort of cause and effect, both stories - Houdini’s life story and Nadav and Avihu’s “alien fire” - are shrouded in a kind of mystical veil. Perhaps the eery sense that surrounds them is the knowledge that you can never be fully ready when it comes to experiencing the great mysteries of our existence.
By great mysteries of our existence, I mean all the biggies: love, death, disease, life itself. Our tradition hands all of these perplexities over to God. There is only so much we can know. There is only so much we can prepare for and understand. And while scientific knowledge increases era by era, only religion has been able to dig into the “whys” by trying to approach the Divine through prayer, ritual, and meditation.
The story of Nadav and Avihu cautions us to approach life’s great mysteries slowly. Check yourself with humility. Understand your fragility. Link up slowly, kind of like the hooks of a zipper coming together and then drawing apart.
This idea seems very important as we start to wonder about opening up our homes and our arms again. My impulse is to go running into life at full speed. But if this virus and our government’s response has taught us anything, it’s that impetuousness and a false bravado leads us into peril.
In approaching this plague, in all its mystery, it behooves us to distance ourselves from the impulses of Nadav and Avihu, or Houdini’s assailant. Better to be like Aaron, the dumbfounded but duty-driven father who carries on despite the horror he witnesses. Aaron reminds me of those on the front lines: our doctors, essential workers, service people, who approach with humility and caution, yet still have the courage to approach. When it comes time to emerge, which I, like you, want to do so, so badly, we must do it in the right way. And that way will take patience.
Harry Houdini said, “I am a great admirer of mystery and magic. Look at this life – all mystery and magic.” The magician’s job is to mirror and emulate the mysterious way in which existence breathes. It’s all illusion.
The Jew’s job, though, is to approach the unfathomable, Divine rhythm of life and try to sing with it. Sometimes we’re on tune, sometimes we simply seek the harmony. But the Jew is humble, aware of our human limitations – an awareness that brings us patience, discernment, and, one day, we pray, reprieve.
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