One of the most problematic incidents in the entire Bible is the traumatic death of the two sons of Aaron -- Nadav and Avihu -- at the zenith of the dedication of the Sanctuary, which was to be the sacerdotal province of the High Priest, Aaron.
This week's Torah reading describes the context of the tragedy, which only increases our perplexity. It is apparent that the two men were punished; but the punishment appears to be far harsher than their crime seems to warrant. After all, the Bible describes a moment of national ecstasy, an unexpected expression of joy and submission when the Almighty crowned the dedication of the Sanctuary by demonstrating His acceptance of the divine service by sending a fire.
Aaron's sons, caught up in the religious excitement of the moment, attempt to return God's gratuitous compliment by themselves offering a fire they had not been commanded to bring. They merely went beyond the requirement of the law, answering God's unexpected fire with their own. So is an act emanating from a desire to come near to God worthy of death?
I believe the solution to the mystery is to be found in the expression used to describe the offering of Nadav and Avihu, a "strange fire," eish zara, reminiscent of the Hebrew avodah zara, "strange service," the usual phrase for idolatry. The Bible does isolate and emphasize a prohibition against fire idolatry, immolating one's child to the idol Moloch, a false god who demands the fire consumption of children as the manner of his devotion.
At least three times, the Bible forbids this form of idolatry. It is first found in the biblical portion on sexual immorality -- the prohibition of giving one's seed to a strange and uncertified place (someone else's wife, one's close relatives, individuals of the same sex, animals); within this context, the Bible commands: "And you shall not give of your seed (children) to be passed over to Moloch."
Barely one chapter later, the prohibition is fleshed out: "An individual who gives his seed to Moloch must be put to death ... ."
A third description of this abomination appears in the last of the five Books of Moses: "Let there not be found among you one who passes over his son or daughter into fire." Combining the various elements involved in the three verses into a single phrase causes the Talmud to rule that the prohibition is literally sacrificing one's child in fire to a false god.
Apparently, such an abominable act could only be performed in a moment of fanatic ecstasy, in which one's false religious value took precedence over the life of one's innocent child. The "strange fire" brought by Nadav and Avihu was certainly not the same; however, since it, too, emanated from a moment of religious ecstasy, such ill-advised fires had to be "nipped in the bud."
Tragically, Islamic fundamentalism has adopted precisely this abomination as a form of its terrorist activity: Training their youths to blow themselves up in the fire of destructive materials in the name of Allah and with the promise of a paradise of 72 virgins. Indeed, this is worse than the priests of Moloch; these modern-day human sacrifices are "inspired" not only to sacrifice themselves, but also to destroy scores of innocent people as well.
The 15th-century scholar Rav Menahem Meiri taught that idolatry has little to do with thought (theology) and everything to do with action (morality). Islamic fundamentalism has turned Allah into Moloch -- and made every mosque that preaches the doctrine of suicide bombing a haven of idolatry.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.