Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Revisiting the Story of Nadav and Avihu

This past week, we read the Parsha of Shmini in the book of VaYikra. In it occurs the most disturbing and perplexing situation involving Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron who offer something strange to G-d and are then consumed. As the text reports:

א וַיִּקְח֣וּ בְנֵֽי־אַֽ֠הֲרֹ֠ן נָדָ֨ב וַֽאֲבִיה֜וּא אִ֣ישׁ מַחְתָּת֗וֹ וַיִּתְּנ֤וּ בָהֵן֙ אֵ֔שׁ וַיָּשִׂ֥ימוּ עָלֶ֖יהָ קְטֹ֑רֶת וַיַּקְרִ֜יבוּ לִפְנֵ֤י יְהוָֹה֙ אֵ֣שׁ זָרָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֧ר לֹ֦א צִוָּ֖ה אֹתָֽם: ב וַתֵּ֥צֵא אֵ֛שׁ מִלִּפְנֵ֥י יְהוָֹ֖ה וַתֹּ֣אכַל אוֹתָ֑ם וַיָּמֻ֖תוּ לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָֹֽה: ג וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶֽל־אַֽהֲרֹ֗ן הוּא֩ אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֨ר יְהוָֹ֤ה ׀ לֵאמֹר֙ בִּקְרֹבַ֣י אֶקָּדֵ֔שׁ וְעַל־פְּנֵ֥י כָל־הָעָ֖ם אֶכָּבֵ֑ד וַיִּדֹּ֖ם אַֽהֲרֹֽן:

Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took their fire pans, put fire in them, and placed incense on it; and they brought these before G-d, with a strange fire which G-d did not command them to bring. Fire came forth from G-d and consumed them and they died before G-d. Moshe said to Aaron, “This is what G-d meant when G-d said, “Through those near to me I show myself holy, and before all of the people I will have glory.” Aaron was silent.

So many of the classical commentators talk about the sin or the misdeed of Nadav and Avihu and indicate that this fire from G-d is punishment for bringing something as an offering to G-d that was not commanded. What is most curious is that this story occurs after we have read for many chapters about exactly how and what we were to offer to G-d on a variety of different occasions and for different reasons. Further, after this brief but critical departure, we will go back to laws of purity, discipline and boundaries, namely those involved with the practices of Kashrut, structuring the eating patterns for the entire nation. Rashi and Ramban both explain that this offering of a strange fire was the cause for the death of Nadav and Avihu and to be sure, this is the conventional reading of the text.

In learning this recently with my son and daughter, we discussed an alternative possibility. Nadav and Avihu were leaders in their own right, good people to be sure by any measurement. Clearly, the commentators are deeply troubled by what is seen here as a misguided action for which they (as well as Aaron, their mourning father) are punished in the most extreme way, through death by fire as a response to the fire they offered.

What was their motivation? Why would these two good people commit such a heinous deed? Or, perhaps, something else entirely is going on here. What if this offering was as a result of their zealous desire to please G-d? What if in their excitement and passion, they “made up” this offering in a moment of inspiration and desire not unlike those felt by brilliant poets and songwriters, dramatists, artists, and others whose moments of intense insight result in strokes of genius, figuratively and literally? If this was what happened, now how do we read this event and extrapolate important and meaningful lessons from it?

On one hand, I made the point during our study that this one text would serve as a clear directive against creative prayer. Yet, while many members of our community may love this idea before we run too fast with it, remember that so much of our structured and disciplined Tefillah scripts were in fact the result of such inspiration and genius. So, that does not seem to completely work as a reading to me.

Maybe, just maybe, there is another message here. A message of boundaries and discipline and remembering that too much of anything is not always the way to go. We observe that Judaism continually teaches us the value of moderation and boundaries. We pray but are also to study. We study and we are also to work in a livelihood. We work to support our families, and we are also supposed to contribute to the larger community. We spend time improving and refining ourselves and we are also to concern ourselves with the well being of others and be an active participant in the larger community. We are truly the ultimate multi-taskers, we Jews are!

To multi-task, one cannot become too wrapped up in any one aspect of one’s life. That is why we do not have Jewish monks, nuns or ascetics of any type. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches, we value the sage more than the saint; that is to say, we are to improve ourselves while we refine society and as part of that effort, as opposed to living in isolation and “far away from that maddening crowd.” Perhaps this is the lesson of Nadav and Avihu. Offering sacrifices to G-d was not simply and singularly about the single minded devotion to G-d, but rather involved following all instructions, observing the limits and boundaries that each person in the community had to respect, and acknowledging that ultimately we serve G-d by the totality of all of our various actions and involvements, not by a single stroke or inspiration of genius.

I love the lesson of solar eclipses; it is a spiritual lesson that is very relevant here. We are not to look at the naked sun because we will become “blinded by the light,” as the song goes. This can happen with any single-minded effort in our lives if we are not careful. The very thing that draws us to it, be it the light of the sun, the love of our soul mate, the passion we have for an activity, or our desire to be one with G-d and G-d’s desires for us, can ultimately destroy us if we approach this object of our affections with disregard for boundaries and the discipline that will protect us throughout our strivings.

I think that Nadav and Avihu can come to teach us this lesson as well. Strange fires are those that can come from within us if we do not observe the protective covering that discipline, rules and boundaries provide us just as dark glasses and protective coverings will prevent blindness when the sun, which we may crave, is so exposed. Perhaps the lesson is that we have to temper our excitement and our passion, no matter how noble the motivation may be. Otherwise, we too may be consumed by the light that is way too bright, as were Nadav and Avihu.


  1. Beautiful post! I think you developed this more since we learned it and added a new and wonderful dimension to the discussion we had last week.

  2. I would like to add that boundaries themselves are products of creative thinking in many ways. The process of Torah (not the bible but the ongoing conversation throughout history)is in its very essence creative. Our standards are constantly subject to small modifications due to a host of factors: culture, time, ethos etc.. This reality therefore presents a unique tension between creativity and limits. Though, they would normally seem to be in contrast to each other, two separate elements, in our tradition, they actually contribute to the existence of the other. Yet they also apparently have the power to undermine one another.

    Therefore my challenge regarding this post is how to navigate this tension when in fact the sources all tied up together.