Parashat Shemini: A Fire That Consumes

Where does the desire to cut corners come from? How can we channel our positive enthusiasm and good intentions, and not let them devolve into a fiery ever-turning sword?

Rabbi Ronen Ben David is the Headmaster of the Neveh Channah High School for Girls, in Memory of Anna Ehrman

We all want things to go well. We are all imbued with a deep faith and desire to truly reach goodness. This is the main reason that every so often, we gird our loins and go above and beyond to do good in the world, but it is also the very root of our passivism. When goodness tarries, our natural tendency is to become absorbed in the mundane and flood our minds with desperate thoughts. So what can we do?

Do we sprint forward fervently, or stand still in complete frustration?

As in any other issue tied to Jewish thought, the key words here are balance and process. By yearning for goodness, we create a general purpose for our lives, but the path to that goodness is paved with obstacles. Like someone embarking on a journey who is shown how the journey will end, everything seems plain and simple at first. It is only when people get going that they discover how many rocks, dilemmas and thorns stand in their path. Remembering the finishing point gives us the strength that prevents us from breaking down when facing those cliffs and crags.

Yet there are those who are short on time. There are those who feel that big goals can be achieved fast, in the “here and now”. We encounter such people in various settings in our lives, and almost always, we are able to say, right off the bat, that the attempt to cut corners will end in disaster.  It does not work, even if we are properly and thoroughly motivated. Rabbi Kook teaches us that in ideological matters, you can’t cut corners, because doing so would always mean that we’d have to categorically reject what other people think. He explains that in order to fulfill a great objective, you need to have an candid dialog, even if the other person’s views differ from your own, and even if you think (mistakenly) that you know the truth, or at least that truth is on your side. It turns out that truth is much more nuanced. It’s hardly black and white. Moreover, in general, those who try to cut corners are also those who are most likely to feel frustrated and hurt when they fail to achieve their goals. This holds true for all ideologies, be they religious, liberal, nationalist, or humanist. They apply to the lives of individuals, to the life of the nation, and to the entire world.

We find a resounding expression of the desire to cut corners in our Parasha:

Moses and Aaron then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Glory of the Hashem appeared to all the people.

Fire came forth from before Hashem and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces. Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before Hashem a strange fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from Hashem and consumed them; thus they died before Hashem. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what Hashem meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.” And Aaron was silent.

For Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad Hassidic movement, as well as other great Hassidic personalities, the repetition of the idea of the “fire going out” conveyed a message with critical importance for generations to come. He proposed that Nadab and Abihu weren’t sinners at all. They were just trying to be ahead of their time. The fire of Hashem will go out and consume a sacrifice that Hashem desires, though that same fire can also consume the most righteous of people. The fire illuminates and warms the world, “so that it might be acceptable in his behalf to atone for it”, but it is also a “consuming fire”. Aaron’s two sons were full of positive enthusiasm, but this kind of fervor, when neglecting to take the entire process into consideration, reached without going through any process, can turn into the fervor of an “ever-turning sword”.

In light of this, we can now understand Moses’ words of consolation to Aaron: they truly are close, he says, but when you want to redeem the entire people and not just the righteous, a fire comes out, and it even consumes those who are righteous in their day.

If we don’t want to err by rushing into things, driven by an extreme and unbalanced Messianic fervor that could, G0d forbid, consume anyone who doesn’t agree with us, we must commit to the process. If we don’t want to rush in, only to be disappointed and end up feeling horrible, we must commit to the process. Even when redemption is at our doorstep, we must all etch the concept of following a process deep into our minds. The redemption process isn’t something that happens in one fell swoop. It’s the result of a deep and candid dialog in which each side truly recognizes and accepts the other, understanding that both were created in the image of God, and that both sides have something to contribute. This kind of dialog ultimately produces a bold connection free of unneeded polemics. Instead of using divisive shortcuts akin to a “foreign fire”, it behooves us to operate confidently and cautiously, following the right process, so that the “consuming fire” can be come “a perpetual fire that keeps burning on the altar and is never extinguished.”


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