Shemini: The Eternal Debate

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.(Vayikra 10: 1-2)

Nadav’s impassioned tones
resemble flames of fire,
forever flicking, leaping;
his fierce desire
to cleave to God
reflects from deep-set eyes.

Avihu listens spellbound;
with face aflame
and gaze entranced,
drawn as a moth, inexorably,
to the immolating light.

Elazar proposes softly
in his sober steadfast way
to keep the glimmering flames alight,
to tend the everlasting glow:
a humble daily practice,
offered up to God.

Itamar heeds, yet wishes sometimes
that he too could ascend the heights,
could scale the pinnacles of zeal –
to give himself to God – but then
return and serve again.

We learn in Parashat Shemini of the episode of the deaths of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. As the inauguration of the Tabernacle (Mishkan) is drawing to a close, these two brothers are struck dead by fire, because they offer up a “strange fire” of their own volition. The commentators struggle mightily with what exactly their sin was, and why they were punished so severely and with no warning. The various reasons suggested, many of which are critical of the pair, include being drunk at the time, arrogance, defiance of authority and a lack of faith. Some, though, defend the pair, with suggestions that theirs was an act of supreme love and joy at the consecration service, which somehow got out of hand.

In a commentary on Shemini,, Rabbi Danielle Upbin cites Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezofsky, the Slonimer Rebbe (1911–2000), in his work Netivot Shalom on Parashat Shemini. He suggests that Nadav and Avihu’s intentions in offering the fire and incense were good, and maybe even they were correct in the way in which they carried it out. Yet, he suggests that they did not check with Moses and Aaron whether their interpretation was correct. Nor did they co-ordinate with each other, as the verse says, “each took his fire pan” (Vayikra 10:1). She says, “Nadav and Avihu went rogue. And in so doing, they disconnected themselves physically and spiritually from their community. That notion of connectivity — to authority, to one another, and to community — the Slonimer explains, is what allows for the presence and protection of God. When that sense of connection is gone, so goes the Presence.”
Rabbi Upbin concludes, “From this interpretation of the narrative, we learn today about the privileged place of  “connection” in Judaism. Connection comes in many forms: it is the recognition of an authority and tradition that speaks to us and moves through us; it is the glue that binds us as community builders; it is the feeling that our individual involvement matters; it is the impetus for us to take our place as part of the fabric of our people’s greater narrative.
“Had Nadav and Avihu acted in the same manner — drawing close to God through their personal talent and wisdom while also retaining their sense of “connection” in all its manifestations — the narrative might have taken a different turn.”

In a further commentary on the parasha,, Dr Rachel Anisfeld notes that every close relationship demands a balance “between passion and devotion, between the spark of love and the daily acts of loyalty and caretaking.” She says so too does our relationship with God. “There are the peak moments of connection and spirituality, the highs of Yom Kippur or of a particularly good moment of prayer or song – these are indeed essential to keeping the flame alive. But there is also the daily devotion of simply being there, the myriad commandments one does even if one is not feeling so excited at that moment.”
Dr Anisfeld suggests that Nadav and Avihu went overboard with their passion, that they were on a “spiritual high”. But she adds that “passion was only part of what was needed at this particular moment. The people standing around watching had already witnessed God’s Presence descend upon the Tabernacle, had fallen on their faces in ecstasy at the sight of the divine flame consuming the sacrifices. Nadav and Avihu went one step further in this direction of passion, and it turns out that one step further is a complete consumption by God of humanity. What was needed at that particular moment was not passion, but a sense of boundaries, and a sense of the security of “commandedness.” The people needed to know that to be close to God is not only about attaining spiritual highs (and perhaps for some not at all about that, at least not to the level that Nadav and Avihu were capable), but simply about being a loyal, devoted servant of God – keeping His commandments.”
Dr Anisfeld continues that while we may seek spiritual highs, we do not always reach that level, and “T[t]he bread and butter of one’s relationship with God, like one’s relationship with one’s spouse and children, is daily devotion, a sense of steadfastness – standing there through thick and thin, through the dry days and the high days and the low days, but still being there to make the lunches and say the brachot (blessings). It is a relief that sometimes all God wants of me is simply to show up, to be my small uninspired self in His presence, to show my devotion through emptiness and humility as well as through passion and intense emotion.” She calls this the “daily minyan attitude” toward religious practice and suggests that the people who show up faithfully are more notable “not by their passion, but simply by their steadfastness. What they are offering up to God is a different sacrifice than Nadav and Avihu’s burst of love, aflame with a wild fire. It is a daily humble expression of connection and loyalty.”

In another commentary on the parasha,, Reb Mimi Feigelson discusses the behavior of these two sons of Aaron. She says she bases her discussion on a story that she heard many years before from Prof. Benny Ish-Shalom. She recounts the story:
“Every summer Rav Kook (first chief rabbi of Eretz Yisrael, d.1935) and Rav Charlap (chief rabbi of Yerushalayim) would go for their summer vacation to Kiryat Ya’arim (right outside of Yerushalayim). One morning after they awoke, Rav Kook went outside and had a lengthy and animated conversation with the gardener about the trees, the plants and the soil. He then returned to their room and began to recite the shacharit [morning] prayers. As the evening began to descend Rav Charlap finally found the courage to question Rav Kook regarding the unusual behavior of that morning – why didn’t he begin with his morning prayers like every day and then go out and talk to the gardener?
“Rav Kook responded: “When I woke up this morning I felt that if I prayed immediately I’d come to “klot hanefesh” (my soul would ascend to God) so I went outside and talked to the gardener, and only when I felt ‘grounded’ in this world did I come in to pray the morning prayers.”
Reb Mimi says she treasured this story for about ten years, and then one day, walking along on her way to learn with Rabbi Mickey Rosen, she realised that actually, she did not really like the story at all!
She continues, “I thought to myself: “If I were to wake up one morning and realize that when praying I would say “Shma Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad” (Hear Israel Hashem is our God, Hashem is one) and at that moment my soul would cleave to God, would I not do it? Would I hold myself back from that moment of union that I have been yearning for my whole life? I couldn’t understand why Rav Kook held back, why he denied himself from reaching that ultimate peak of union with God.”
She shared the story and her problem with it with Rabbi Rosen. She says, “His response was immediate: “There are two ways to give a gift – one way is to give the gift that you think is the ultimate gift, the other is to give a gift that the recipient wants to receive. You think that to give your soul back to God is the greatest gift you can give Him, but what Rav Kook understood is that the gift that God wants to receive is our service here in this world. It was only when he could pray in a manner that would keep him in this world did he begin to pray.” ”
Reb Mimi adds, “I have been walking with the story for twenty years and with Rabbi Rosen’s answer for the last ten. I cannot tell the story without it. While I honor the truth of it I cannot let go of my question: “Why did Rav Kook hold back, why did he deny himself from reaching that ultimate peak of union with God?” I believe I may be a descendant of Nadav and Avihu.
“In Shmot (Exodus 24, 9) Nadav and Avihu ascend the mountain with Moshe, Aharon and the seventy elders. They see God. And now, in our portion, they are inside the Mishkan, yet again with the potential of “Lifnei Hashem” (before God).” How could they hold back? How could they not run in to the inner chamber with a personal offering to God?”


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