When Was Executive Burnout Truly Burnout?

Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner

Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner

Parshat Shemini

When confronted by the unexpected and even tragic, one of our first responses is to ask “why?” Our weekly Torah portion, Shemini, provokes such a question.

For seven days, Israel participated in the building of the desert sanctuary, the Mishkan, and witnessed its dedication and the installation of the Kohanim to serve in that hallowed structure.

Now, on the eighth day, at the pinnacle of their joy and celebration, as the Torah describes it, “Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put coals and then incense on it, which they offered before the Lord; alien fire [“esh zara”], which He had not required of them. And fire came forth from the Lord and incinerated them.” (Lev. 10:1-2)

Their deaths have perplexed Jewish commentary for several thousand years with the “why” question. And for several thousand years we have offered a wide range of opinions.
The most frequent explanations try to justify the divine fire that incinerated both brothers with a close reading of the text for hints of their offense. After all, could a just God incinerate innocent boys just admitted to their holy vocation?

Our Sages of the Talmud struggled to identify their sin, their violation of the Mishkan’s sanctity, its holiness, its kedushah. In Midrash (Sifra, Shemini) Akiva proposed that they took coals from an unsanctified source, while Yishmael held them responsible for bringing the incense of their own volition. In another source, Yishmael suggested that they entered the Mishkan drunk (Sifrei, Acharei Mot).

Others focused on their sin of ignoring the authority of their elders, not asking of each other whether this was a wise choice to enter the Mishkan. They are described by other teachers as being impatient and unable to wait for their turn for leadership.

And so it goes for centuries — rarely agreement but always looking for “why” these young men were killed by sacred fire.

But the question is reinforced by our Haftarah (2 Sam. 6) retelling of another strange death apparently at the hand of God. Uzzah was escorting the Ark of God to Jerusalem when the oxen stumbled. He reached out with his hand to steady the Ark. As the TaNaKh describes, “The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down, and he died there beside the ark of God.” ( 2 Sam. 6:7)

Again, “Why?” Where was Uzzah’s failure? He reacted as we might expect for someone sensing danger to the Ark.

In both cases, of Nadav and Avihu and also Uzza, they violated clear and repeated protocols. Everyone, from the least important Jew to the highest rank of Jewish stewardship, came too close to the central shrine and contacted God’s holiness/kedushah.
However, are violations of those Torah instructions so grave that death is the appropriate punishment?

Firstly, the rule is that there are rules. We are reminded graphically that not even the Kohen Gadol and his family are exempt from punishment. As the Torah teaches, “One law for everyone in the community.” (Num. 15:16) This means for all of Israel that no one is above the law.

A modern suggestion compared both occasions to the regulations of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which proscribes detailed guidelines and redundant rules for transporting radioactive materials through our states and cities. The NRC is much more OCD when we compare it to apparent popular nonchalance about laws, rules or sharing misinformation about, e.g., pandemics or politics. I, for one, am grateful for the more pedantic handling codes for plutonium in our neighborhoods than the Torah laid out for Israel concerning the Ark and the Mishkan.

In fact, don’t we concern ourselves about our leaders today? Don’t we worry about their too-frequent burnout? Each generation understands the inherent danger to the soul of our leaders and subsequently to the community in their own time and history.

A second general principle derived from these two Biblical tragedies is the importance of balancing creativity and tradition in all things — and especially in religion. We know of the danger of religious fanaticism and the pitfalls of religious stagnation. Similarly, we can suffer if there is either willful blind obedience or even stagnation of our faith. There is as much potential for self-imposed harm in an impetuous revision of Judaism as well as it would be a failure to apply our evolving religious values in a rapidly changing world and technologies.

Judaism is a faith of tradition and change — a balance of the Maimonidean “golden mean.”

Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner is retired and provides kosher supervision for Traditional Kosher Supervision in the Greater Philadelphia area, while teaching hands-on craft skills to make and use properly holiday ritual objects. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.


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