Table for Five: Shemini
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord. Lev. 10:1-2
Dr. Sheila Tuller Keiter, Judaic Studies Faculty, Shalhevet High School
Great, give us the hardest verses in the Torah. The deaths of Nadav and Avihu are among the most troubling narratives in Tanakh. It is unclear how they sinned, and whatever their sin, it does not seem severe enough to warrant death. Varying explanations abound, and I make no claim to resolve this quandary here. However, we can learn from one approach.
Some suggest that Nadav and Avihu sinned by bringing unauthorized fire. They were so moved by the emotions and excitement of the tabernacle’s dedication, that they brought a spontaneous offering of incense. However, since God did not command such an offering, they were killed. Death seems a harsh response to spiritual spontaneity. If anything, shouldn’t their genuine emotional service of God have been rewarded?
Perhaps Nadav and Avihu focused their zeal on themselves rather than on God. Today, people value authenticity. Worship and spirituality must feel real and meaningful. Set prayer increasingly gives way to innovative experiential expressions. Innovation and meaning are fine, so long as they remain God-centered, but they become dangerous when their focus veers from God toward the self. Religious expression aimed entirely on self-gratification becomes self-worship, a form of idolatry and a capital offense. This is equally true for interpersonal relationships.
When one person uses a relationship solely for self-gratification, the connection is severed, the relationship dies, and that person becomes consumed by self-regard. Nadav and Avihu remind us to focus our relationships, Godly and interpersonal, away from ourselves to where they belong.
Yehudit Garmaise, Teacher, Pizza and Parsha for women
What did Nadav and Avihu do wrong? Parshat Shemini opens with Moshe giving Aaron clear directions for bringing the first offering. Aaron followed those directions without deviation, Hashem’s holy fire descended, and the Jews celebrated. Moments later, in stark contrast to Aaron’s meticulousness, Nadav and Avihu impulsively grabbed their pans, lit strange fires, and brought unbidden incense. Immediately, Hashem responded by sending down a fire that entered the brothers’ nostrils and took their souls, leaving their bodies intact. Why?
The brothers failed to follow many laws. Aaron’s sons brought the incense without first receiving instructions from Moshe and Aaron. Also, the brothers were not married, and they were drunk. They had not washed, they did not wear the special robe, and they walked into the Holy of Holies: which was only for the High Priest on Yom Kippur.
On the Tabernacle’s first day, Hashem made an extreme example of Nadav and Avihu’s blatant disregard of the sacrificial laws, so that the Children of Israel would never repeat the brothers’ rash behavior. But why did Nadav and Avihu, who were known to be tzaddikim, do it? Many commentators tell us that, enraptured by the ecstatic moment of witnessing Hashem’s fire that accepted the first offering, the brothers’ overwhelming love for Hashem caused them to desire an “out-of-this-world” connection with the Divine. They wished to dissolve into Hashem’s essence.
However, instead of directing upward our passion for Hashem, we must work to bring down G-dliness, to transform our homes and communities into places where the Divine Presence wants to dwell.
Rabbi Chaim Tureff, Pressman Academy and Director of STARS Addiction Treatment
If there is any pasuk that encapsulates the COVID-19 epidemic this is it. Before this pasuk, Moshe commanded Nadav and Avihu to stand watch for seven days at the Tent of Meeting for the inauguration of the Mishkan. They were at the pinnacle of their “professional” careers and little did they know that it would come crashing down so quickly.
There are many interpretations as to why they deserved to die. They range from being drunk to rendering a halachic decision in front of Moshe to bringing an additional offering. Regardless of the reason, on a whim everything changed. Kohelet states, “For a man does not even know his hour.” How can we be at the top of the mountain and have everything wiped away so easily? As we have all experienced over the past five weeks, we are not in control. We don’t know anything, and certainly not everything we think we know.
How many of us had jobs, Passover plans, Israel trips, business trips, or as myself, an innovative documentary that was ready to shoot during a very specific time and location which may be lost forever. More importantly, many of us have lost loved ones or have friends that lost loved ones. It is continuing to add up. When it’s finally over, all of us will experience pain and loss. If there is one thing we can learn from this verse, it’s to make every moment count with integrity, meaning, and Godliness.
Ultimately, that’s all we have.
David Porush, Student, teacher, writer
1312 BCE, Rosh Chodesh Nissan, one of the most mystical days in our calendar. Kabbalah tells us G-d conceived of creating the world on this day. The portal that enables Him to visit us, the mishkan, is complete. Moshe, Aaron and his sons have tested it for a week. Everything works. It’s show time.
Then, in an excess of wine-induced ecstasy or zeal or chutzpah, these princes enter the most transcendent and dangerous place in the cosmos to offer that most esoteric of sacrifices, incense. G-d’s fire doesn’t accept the incense as it did two verses before, but instead eats their souls, leaving their bodies still in their tunics. In the following verses, Moses tells Aaron, “G-d warned us this is how His glory works to bring us near” and Aaron is not to mourn his sons openly. Was it Divine kiss or punishment? Did they transcend or transgress?
At this miraculous portal, the interface between the supernal and mundane, all is beyond comprehension, suprarational. I began writing this on Nadav and Avihu’s yahrzeit, 2020. In these days of plague that will include Pesach, our mystical calendar is talking to us across the millennia. Too many have become Aarons, enduring the unimaginable pain of burying loved ones without proper mourning.
Yet, perhaps there’s solace. The mishkan sublimed the physical to extract transcendent holiness. Today, while we wait to rebuild it, its invitation to enter the portal and elevate matter into spirit through sacrifice is everywhere, if we look for it.
Rabbi Jason Rosner, Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park
These verses appear to express echoes of an anxiety about the spread of a calamity that strikes without warning and without class or age discrimination. As priests, Avihu and Nadav should be protected from this arbitrary death by God’s favor. The brothers are young and in good health but they die suddenly and unexpectedly over a ritual mistake. Where is their opportunity to atone?
In the following verses, their father Aaron is so pained and baffled at the sudden loss of his children that when he hears the news, he falls into depression and cannot bring himself to speak. The boys are carried outside the camp and the carriers are instructed to hold them by their clothes so as not to touch their bodies. Circumstances prevent normal funeral rites. The remaining priests are instructed to quarantine themselves inside the Tent of Meeting. Moses instructs the priests to be careful about maintaining physical and spiritual boundaries to keep themselves from danger. Traditional commentators on the Torah suppose that God operates on the principle of Midah Keneged Midah (measure for measure). The brothers must have deserved death. Rashi suggests they were drunk on the job and thus the punishment was warranted. Philo of Alexandria says they were overcome with enthusiasm and tore off their clothes, violating the rules of priestly dress. The commentators offer these explanations because the death of Nadav and Avihu feels random, disproportionate, and unjustified, a situation that feels painfully familiar in April of 2020.
With thanks to Dr. Sheila Tuller Keiter, Yehudit Garmaise, Rabbi Chaim Tureff, David Porush, and Rabbi Jason Rosner
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