By Rabbi Howard Alpert
Fire is a powerful force in Jewish tradition. Fire marks the beginning and end of Shabbat with the lights of the Shabbat and Havdalah candles, setting the intervening 25 hours apart from all the other hours of the week.
It can be used to purify objects, making that which is forbidden “kosher” or fit for ritual use. Under some circumstances, it takes an ordinary meal of grain or meat and turns it into an act of worship of God, while under other circumstances it is used to destroy items already made profane before God.
In this week’s parsha, Shemini, fire is used in another way: to cause the death of Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aaron the High Priest. Leviticus, chapter 17, tells us, “Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censor, put fire in them and incense upon them, and offered it to God as a sacrifice, a foreign fire for which God had not commanded them. Then a fire came forth from God and consumed them; they died before God.”
At the time of their deaths, Nadav and Avihu were leading the nation in a ceremony dedicating the new tabernacle to the service of God. For what reason would their efforts be interrupted — and their lives curtailed — in such a ghastly and public way? The biblical text does not say and the reader is left to ponder the question.
The rabbis of the Talmud assume the deadly fire was intended as divine punishment for some sin that Nadav and Avihu must have committed. The nature of the sin itself is not specified in the Torah and is the subject of speculation.
Rabbi Ishmael notes the close juxtaposition between our biblical narrative and verses outlining the prohibition against a kohen engaging in temple service after imbibing wine and concludes that Aaron’s sons must have entered the inner sanctum of the tabernacle while drunk.
Rabbi Akiva, Ishmael’s colleague and frequent rival, contends that their sin was to make halachic rulings without consulting Aaron their father or Moses their teacher.
Writing in a later era, Nachmanides offers that Nadav and Avihu erred in the details of the service by not following the accepted practice of preparing the incense before introducing the fire. While this might have been a trivial oversight if committed by lesser individuals, Nachmonides explains that inattention to detail in service to God by a community leader can have major impact on the community and was a sin that needed to be answered.
Contemporary writers propose that the fire from God was not intended as punishment. Rather, it was the consequence of a decision made by Nadav and Avihu concerning their approach to religious practice. In deciding how they would celebrate the Tabernacle’s dedication, the brothers had a choice. They could take the path laid out for them and follow the priestly ritual precisely or they could act out their passions in a more spontaneous way.
The first would have been the safer, less-exciting path. It would have fulfilled their ritual obligations but may have left them personally unfulfilled. Instead, in the ecstasy of the moment and following their hearts (or was it their souls), they chose to improvise and created an original set of ritual to express their spiritual passions. These passions were strong. Perhaps they were too strong. Figuratively and literally, they lit a fire that could not be controlled and which, in the end, was all-consuming.
The biblical account of Nadav and Avihu presages the choice that faces people of faith in the 21st century.
Do we channel our religious inclinations into rituals that are sanctified by time and our forebears but that may not ignite our passion, or do we focus on new religious expressions that speak to contemporary spiritual needs but could have unknown consequences?
Students of this week’s parsha may find a hint of the Torah text’s bias: The telling of Nadav and Avihu’s tragic death is followed by a recitation of rituals that regard temple service, concluding with the details of what physical characteristics make fish, animals and other living things “kosher.” Religious practice rarely gets more ritualistic than that.
Rabbi Howard Alpert is the immediate past-president of the Philadelphia Board of Rabbis and a consultant to Hillel of Greater Philadelphia. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.