Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47
The great tragedy of Shemini is the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu. Here is how Torah describes their very first day “on the job” as priests of Israel:
And the sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, took each of them his fire-pan and put fire in it and placed incense upon it and brought forward alien fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. (Lev. 10:1-2)
To put it mildly, this seems a little harsh. Their great transgression was that they offered “alien fire,” meaning fire that God did not command. Why would they do this? Apparently, they were so moved by zeal for God that they went beyond what God actually commanded. Why is this so wrong? What possible lesson does Torah intend for us here?
Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik taught that there are two different approaches to religious observance, which he called Jewish and pagan. In the Jewish approach, we are guided not by emotion, but by the discipline of our covenantal obligations to God. Over time, through the discipline of practice, we gain deeper and more fulfilling spiritual meaning and sustenance. The Jewish path is, in his view, one in which our actions are limited by the boundaries of the commandments. The pagan approach, is the polar opposite to Judaism. It begins will zeal and excitement, which leads us to change our practice to suit our emotions. Over time, he argues, this approach ends with disillusionment. (Chumash Mesurat HaRav, Lev. 10:1-2)
I think there is some truth to his argument. However, rigidity in observance does not come without its own pitfalls. There is another lesson to be learned from the tragedy of Nadab and Abihu. Zeal can easily lead to zealotry, which is but another name for religious extremism. Jewish tradition argues that God wants us to take a middle path. God requires our devotion, but within limits. When we go beyond those limits we dance with the possibility of becoming extremists, of becoming filled with the self-righteousness that leads us to disapprove of and eventually to demonize everyone who is not like us. This can happen not only when we go beyond the letter of the law in our practice, but when we make the letter of the law so rigid as to forget the spirit of the law.
Nadab and Abihu teach us that true d’vekut, our ability to be one with God, requires us to dance a delicate dance, with pitfalls and dangers on every side. This is not to say that we should not try. Rather, the opposite is true. It’s just that we should approach the path with confidence in the direction it leads us, and with humility to help us stay on course.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2015 Rabbi Gary Pokras