Parshat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel – “And Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his pan, put fire in them, and placed incense upon it, and they brought before the Lord foreign fire, which He had not commanded them. And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the Lord spoke, [when He said]: I will be sanctified by those who are near to Me and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron was silent.” (Leviticus 10:1-3)
The Bible is describing the climax of the seven days of the Consecration of the Sanctuary, the great celebration inaugurating Aaron the High Priest and his priestly sons into the exalted positions of religious, sacramental and dynastic leadership. A fire of Divine acceptance descends, consuming the sacrificial offerings; the ecstatic nation joyously breaks out in exultant song, falling on their faces in submission to the Lord. And the sons of Aaron, apparently caught up in the ecstasy of the moment, respond to God’s fire by bringing their own fire offering, two fire-pans of incense before the Lord. But alas, the Lord sends down another fire which consumes the two young men, shattering the celebrations.
The biblical commentaries attempt to identify the precise crime which merited such an extreme punishment.
Since the very next passage prohibits inebriated priests from entering the Tent of Communion, some suggest that herein lay the crime of Nadav and Avihu; others maintain that they were anxious to take over the leadership, that they acted on their own without asking Moses’ permission.
But I believe that a careful reading of the text will provide the truest explanation for the fire which consumed Nadav and Avihu.
The last five chapters of the Book of Exodus are dedicated to the Sanctuary, which symbolizes God dwelling together with man: “They shall make for Me a Sanctuary so that I may dwell within their midst” (Exodus 25:8). But the Bible also warns us about getting too close to God unless we are properly prepared, lest we be consumed by Him: “I may not go in your midst lest I consume you along the way, because you are a stiff-necked people” (Exodus 33:3). God, you see, is compared to fire – the source of all creativity, but at the same time a force of inflammatory destruction.
What is true of God is also true of His Torah. This is precisely the teaching of the Midrash (Mechilta Yitro) based upon the words of our sacred Bible (Exodus 19:18): “‘Mount Sinai was all in smoke….God was in the fire,’ teaching us that Torah is fire, it was given from fire (esh-dat) and it is compared to fire. And since one who comes too close to fire gets burnt, a person must merely warm himself close to its light.”
In the words of the Jerusalem Talmud, “This Torah [Ma’aseh Merkava, mysticism] is compared to two paths, one of fire and the other of snow: Turn to the one extreme, and you will be consumed by the fire; turn to the other extreme, you will freeze in the snow. What must one do? Walk in the center path” (J.T. Hagiga, Chapter 2 Halacha 1; see Shalom Rosenberg, “Between Snow and Fire,” Makor Rishon, Shabbat Supplement, Vayakhel, February 21, 2014)
Hence, when it comes to Divine service, the construction of our Sanctuary (and our closeness to God and Torah), we are told again and again that everything was done “just as the Lord commanded Moses” – no less and no more. Alienation from God and Torah makes life an empty, materialistic shell, devoid of spirit and meaning; too much God and Torah can also consume and destroy physical life and the world altogether.
So when Aaron and his sons go beyond God’s law and ecstatically (fanatically) bring a fire which had not been commanded by God, they must be stopped in their tracks; such actions can lead to the destroying of one’s own children in the fires of Moloch or endangering civilization on the altars of suicide-bombing Jihadists.
In a far less extreme fashion than Moloch and Jihad, even in our own religious society, we have seen some Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) demonstrations of fallout from going beyond God’s commands in the study of Torah.
I am unalterably opposed to Israel’s jailing of any Jew who wishes to learn Torah, but I am likewise unalterably opposed to Israel’s supporting any institution which educates towards total immersion in Torah alone, which sees Torah not as a prescription for life in order to perfect our world, but rather as a substitution for life to the exclusion of the world. Such education reforms and perverts the authentic Torah of the ages, which taught the value of Torah alongside of professional pursuit (Mishna Avot 2:2), which insisted that one must be a productive “grain-gathering” citizen at the same time that one studies Torah, and which ruled that the Torah scholar must share full responsibility with the lay-person, relying neither on miracles nor on Torah study for protection, whenever human safety is at stake. We dare not go beyond God’s law in Divine service even in the commandment to study Torah; it threatens the future of our nation.