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Parashat Shemini juxtaposes two sacrifices, both offered to God by Israelites in the desert and both summoning Divine fire, but with tragically different consequences. The first series of sacrifices was offered by Aaron and his sons and was rewarded: “the Presence of the Lord appeared to all the people” and “[f]ire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar” (Leviticus 9:8-24). The second, incense offered by Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu, elicited God’s wrath and swift punishment: “fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died” (Leviticus 10:2).
The contrast between these two parts of Parashat Shemini–one capped off by a holy revelation and a sacrifice-consuming fire and the other by sudden, fiery death–is striking. Why did Nadav and Avihu die? Were they not serving God by offering sacrifices, just as they and their father and brothers had previously?
Ibn Ezra, a medieval commentator, uses the phrase immediately following the description of the brothers’ sacrifice to explain the problem with their offering. Commenting on the words, “which [God] had not enjoined upon them,” he explains that their grave sin lay in doing something that God had not commanded them to do, in contrast to the earlier part of the parashah, in which the priests do “as Moses had commanded” (Leviticus 10:1). It was not so much what Nadav and Avihu brought as why they brought it–because of their own autonomous desire to worship God, not in response to God’s command (Ibn Ezra on Leviticus 10:1. Leviticus 9:21).
We can certainly understand this impulse. In our own modern, incense-less version of service, sometimes we respond to an explicit request for aid, while at other times we serve others spontaneously out of a desire to give or effect change in the world. Intuitively, we may feel that service offered out of our own heroic motivation should be more highly regarded than service offered in response to a call for help. After all, there is something a bit coercive about responding when someone asks–it can be difficult to say “no” in the face of suffering–while there is something unboundedly generous about offering help simply because one feels like it.
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