The article below is from Rabbi Riskin’s book Vayikra: Sacrifice, Sanctity & Silence, part of his Torah Lights series of commentaries on the weekly parsha, published by Maggid and available for purchase here.

Parshat Acharei Mot: Be Passionately Moderate!

Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin is the Founder and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone

RSR Head Shot Gershon Ellinson credit

And God spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they came near before the Lord and died.” (Leviticus 16:1)

Which is the greater evil in God’s eyes – hot sins of passion or cold sins of apathy? Rabbenu Zadok HaKohen of Lublin (1822–1900), in his masterful work Pri Zaddik on the portions of the week, cites a famous midrash of an individual walking on a road (life’s journey), seductively being summoned either by fire to his right or snow to his left. The wise traveler understands that he must remain at the center, avoiding both extremes of either fanatic passion (fire) or disinterested apathy (snow).

But which of the two extremes is more problematic?

A sin of apathy – symbolized by snow – could well describe the infamous transgression of the scouts, tribal chiefs sent by Moses to bring back a report about the land of Israel. Although they did not conceal the positive aspects of the Promised Land (flowing with milk and honey, and grapes so huge eight men were required to carry each cluster), ten of the scouts nonetheless stressed the negative: a race of people descended from giants who would be impossible to conquer. At the end of the day it was their (and the nation’s) apathy toward Israel and disinterest in the religious and political challenge and potential of national sovereignty, which led them to take the path of least resistance and either return to Egypt or remain in the desert. Their sin was one of coldness and disillusionment, a lack of idealism bordering on cynicism.

In contrast to the apathy of the spies, the classic example of a sin of passion may be ascribed to Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons who died when they brought an unauthorized offering of “strange fire,” referred to in the beginning of this Torah portion. The initial event describes the dedication of the Sanctuary, amidst all of the pomp and circumstance of the priestly ritual, which achieves a climax when the Almighty sends down a fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice of the Israelites and to demonstrate His acceptance of their service. The people become exultant, fall on their faces in worship! And in this moment of ecstasy Nadav and Avihu, sons of the high priest and major celebrants at this consecration, express their passion for God in bringing a “strange fire which had not been commanded.” They are immediately killed by God in a fire from above. It seems clear that here is the prototypical “sin of fire,” excessive ecstasy which – if not tempered by divine law – can lead to zealous fanaticism which must be stopped in its tracks.

Nevertheless, I would argue that in the scale of transgression, “sins of fire” are generally more forgivable than are “sins of snow.” Even if Nadav and Avihu committed a transgression in bringing their strange fire, Moses mitigates their crime when he communicates God’s reaction to his bereft brother:

“I will be sanctified through them that come near to me, and before all the people will I be glorified.” (Leviticus 10:3)

The sense of the verse is that although the transgression had to be punished, the perpetrators of the crime are still referred to as being “near” to the divine. In contrast, the apathy of the spies leads to major tragedies throughout the course of Jewish history, starting with the punishment of the entire desert generation. “They will therefore not see the land that I swore to their ancestors.” (Numbers 14:23)

Moreover, the self-imposed passion of Nadav and Avihu, although it leads to the tragic deaths of these two ecstatic celebrants, does not go beyond the “transgressors themselves”; the Bible adds a further commandment several verses after the description of their death:

“Drink no wine or strong drink…when you go into into the Tent of Meeting, that you die not…” (Leviticus 10:9)

In effect, the Bible is forbidding unbridled ecstasy within divine service. But this is a far cry from the punishment of the Ninth of Av tragedy (the day of the scouts’ report) which portends Jewish exile and persecution for thousands of years!

Finally, one most striking feature of this portion’s opening verse, which refers back to the transgression of Aaron’s sons who “came near before the Lord and died,” is the absence of the names of Nadav and Avihu. Could the Torah be distinguishing the act from the actors, the crime from its perpetrators? Passion that can lead to fanaticism must be stopped and condemned, but the individuals, whose motives were pure, remain close to the Almighty even in their moment of punishment! And despite the fact that excessive passion resulted in the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the service in the Temple goes on. Once again, in contrast, when the ten tribal heads refuse to enter the land, they are in effect saying no to the entire plan of God; Jewish history comes to a forty-year standstill because of the apathy, and faithlessness of the scouts.

Rabbenu Zadok goes one step further in his interpretation, explaining the root cause of sins of apathy. Why do people or nations fall prey to the snow of icy coldness and disinterested paralysis? What gives rise to a cynical dismissal in place of an idealistic involvement? It is the individual’s lack of belief in his capability to succeed in the activity; cynical nay-saying can often serve as a protection against failure and disappointment. Remember how the scouts described the giant inhabitants of Canaan:

“We were in our own eyes as grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.” Numbers 13:33)

The majority of the scouts began with a poor self-image, and since they cannot possibly imagine defeating the Canaanites, they decide not even to attempt it.

This connection between cold apathy and low self-image is hinted at in a verse of the song of praise, Eshet Hayil – “Woman of Valor” (Proverbs 31:10–31) sung at the Friday evening Sabbath table. Most of the verses praise the initiative and lovingkindness of a woman “who considers a field and buys it” (31:15) and “stretches out her palm to the poor” (31:20). But how are we to understand the following verse?

“She is not afraid of the snow for her household, for all her household are clothed with scarlet.” (Proverbs 31:21)

Had the verse mentioned warm, woolen garments I would have understood the reference, but how does being clothed specifically in scarlet garments protect from snow?

If we consider snow as a metaphor for sins of apathy, then the verse is telling us a simple truth: the woman of valor is not afraid that her household will suffer from apathy and disinterestedness, a paralysis of action such as that which afflicted the generation of the scouts, because she imbues in them deep feelings of self-worth; she dresses her household in the royal garb (scarlet). If you wish your children to emerge as kings, then bring them up like princes!

Now, if too much fire leads to death, then it might be better to choose snow over fire, and do away with the unique priestly garments which are liable to produce the exaggerated emotion of zeal! After the double deaths of Nadav and Avihu, one might speculate that if the voltage in the holy Temple is so high, the danger involved may not be worth the risk. With the death of his sons, it would have been natural for Aaron to question his capacity to serve as high priest. Maybe he even blamed himself for the deaths of his sons because of his involvement at the debacle of the golden calf – thinking that he had not done enough to dissuade the Israelites from succumbing to their idolatrous tendencies. At that time, most of the Israelites went wild and off-course with ecstatic abandon, and now his own sons went too far with their “Holy Temple” passion.

But apparently that is not the biblical perspective. After the reference to the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, this Torah portion continues with a description of the special garments Aaron must wear in order to officiate on the Day of Atonement.

“He must put on a sanctified white linen tunic, and have linen pants on his body. He must also gird himself with a linen sash, and bind his head with a linen turban. These are the sacred vestments.” (Leviticus 16:4)

I would submit that here the Torah is emphasizing that we dare not throw out the baby with the bathwater. National and religious pride must still be nurtured and fostered despite the fiery fanaticism which can sometimes emerge from special unique garb and inspiring divine service. What we see from this discussion is that although both passion and apathy have inherent dangers, the results of apathy can be far more devastating in the long run.

However, in the final analysis, if we return to our midrash about the individual who must walk in the middle of the road, neither falling prey to the fire – to the successive passion – nor to the snow, to the apathetic loss of idealism, we realize that to remain in the center is not to take a path of least resistance; it is rather the Golden Mean of Maimonides, “the truest path of sweetness and road of peace” as demarcated by our holy Torah, whose “tree of life is in the center of the garden.” The traveler must zealously guard against either extreme.

Yes, the Hassidic Kotzker Rebbe taught: “Better a ‘hot’ misnaged (opponent of the Hassidic movement) than a ‘pareve’ hassid!” But best of all is one who is passionate in his moderation, and understands that either of the extremes can lead to disaster.

Shabbat Shalom


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