Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Acharei Mot (Leviticus 16:1 – 18:30)

By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Efrat, Israel“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.


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