Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Other Four Sons

The Jewish Week, April 22, 2005

This Passover, I will not be so accepting of the child who does not know how to ask. That's because I'll be thinking about four other sons: Ian Katz, the biblical Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu, and my son, Ethan.

When Ginger Katz woke up in her Norwalk, Conn., home on a September morning in 1996, her son Ian, 20, lay on his bed in the basement, dead of a heroin overdose. The doctors advised Ginger to tell the world that he had died of some freak medical happenstance. But as Ian's friends slowly began to come forward, filling the details of a sordid history of addiction that had begun as early as eighth grade, she realized the silence had to end. It was the silence that had done him in, the acquiescence, denial and wishful thinking from a legion of doctors, educators, friends -- and parents -- that had killed her son. By misreading all the signs, they all had been Ian's enablers.

As I listened to Ginger speak recently to a group of parents at my son's day school, it occurred to me that I, too, had been an enabler -- not of Ian, but of Aaron and his sons, Nadav and Avihu.

I've always found the story in chapter 10 of Leviticus to be very troubling. Here it was, the inauguration day of the priesthood, Aaron's most glorious moment, filled with pomp, miraculously topped off by divine fire. Then something incredible occurred: Nadav and Avihu came forward with an offering that was not sanctioned -- some would say displaying extra passion for God or, most commentators say, showing disrespect to theirelders, possibly even entering the holy precinct in a drunken stupor.

We don't know why it happened, but the two sons, last seen entering the Sanctuary carrying a "strange fire," were obliterated in a catastrophic conflagration. And we know something else: Aaron reacted with utter and complete silence.

Rarely does the Torah note the absence of speech. Here it does. Nadav and Avihu died amid a puff of smoke and a conspiracy of silence.

All my life I've come down on the side of the rebellious progeny. When I was an equally rebellious 17, I was the featured speaker at my congregation's teen service, and I took the opportunity to excoriate the grownups like a latter-day Bob Dylan for being too quick to tune us out. It was my own non-toxic brand of "strange fire."

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land

And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin'.

I didn't exactly quote Dylan, but whatever I said, the rabbi was not amused. We Hammermans love to play with fire; the chasidim call it hitlahavut, cleaving to God like a moth to a flame. But I was wrong to defend the dopers and to validate their conspiracy of silence.

I was taught this priceless lesson by my own son, an eighth-grader who had heard Ginger Katz at school, and came home and dared to open his mouth and ask his parents to hear her presentation for parents that night.

That presentation was priceless. I learned much more about the subject than I had known. You can go to her Web site ( for more details, but we all need to know just how widespread the use of alcohol and drugs is among teens.

We need to know just how much more potent and dangerous marijuana is than what was the case back in those happy hippie days. We need to know the signs and how to combat the peer pressure. We need to know how important it is to do simple things like have dinnertogether as a family. We need to know that we are up against a multibillion-dollar industry and that the people who are making this money are experts at hooking our children. We need to know that little kids are pushing drugs in rich private schools and that it's not just a big public high school problem. We need to know how principles and superintendents often ignore what is happening and how doctors too often become enablers.

We need to know how to choose our friends and how to monitor our children'sactions. At the earlier session attended by the seventh- and eighth-graders, Katzhad implored the students to ask their parents to come that night. Yet very few of the parents attended the evening session. Had the kids just not told them? Had they told the parents but the parents decided not to go? Did it just rain too hard?

All I know is that I had not intended on going either until my child asked me. The moment that happened, I had to go. Ethan had broken the conspiracy of silence and I was not going to miss the chance to join the conversation. I've changed my mind about Nadav and Avihu. Rashi and the others were right: They were drunk. They were drunk and stoned and they were parading around puffing on their strange fire. And no one noticed. Or if they did notice, even worse, they remained silent. Aaron never spoke up: not before,not during, and not after.

His sons were killed by Aaron's own silence.

If Aaron and I were wrong about Nadav and Avihu -- if we ignored all the signs -- I hope to have learned from that horrific experience. It's too late for Aaron, for Ginger Katz, and perhaps for Major League Baseball, but it is not too late for us.

The next time I see a young person heading toward the tent of meeting with a strange fire, I will know enough to speak up and snuff it out.

And the next time a child at my seder lacks the courage to speak, I will tell that child this tale of the Other Four Sons.

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