Parashat Shemini

Role Models For Leadership

The deaths of Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu remind us of the need for leaders who connect with the people.

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Provided by Hillel’s Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, which creates educational resources for Jewish organizations on college campuses.

"Sons of High Priest Commit Minor Infraction. Internally Burn to Death: External Bodies Left Untouched." It reads like a headline for the National Enquirer. Even for the Torah the deaths of Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu in this week's parasha, Shemini, are sensational.

Their crime: they decide to make an incense offering to God at an inappropriate time, presenting "alien fire" to God. Their punishment: God sends flames up their noses and burns them to death. God explains his actions by saying ambiguously, "I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me, thus I will be honored before the entire people." Aaron remains silent. Their cousins remove their tunics and their bodies, untouched by the flames; Aaron and his sons are forbidden to mourn.

On a literal level these deaths are hard to explain. These are not common men attempting to destroy the hierarchy of the priesthood; these are Aaron's sons. They are actually fulfilling one of their duties, the daily offering of incense. Their deaths are violent and painful, and God seems to say that through this violence he has been honored. If this is the case, sanctification from God is a dangerous thing.

God is Always Just

In Judaism, God is both merciful and wrathful, but always just. Accordingly sages throughout the ages have tried to rationalize these seemingly empty deaths. The sin was bringing "alien fire" before God. Midrash [commentary] claims that this offering came as the last in a series of selfish acts. The pride involved in the act made the offering alien. There is another suggestion that perhaps the brothers were intoxicated, making the offering an abomination to God, and leading into the next section of the portion that forbids the drinking of alcohol before entering the Tabernacle.

Of all the inconsistencies in the portion, the greatest is the preservation of the brothers' bodies. After their strange demise, the parasha relates how the cousins of Nadav and Avihu "carried them by their tunics to the outside of the camp." The fire did not burn their clothing or, as Midrash claims, their bodies.

Oftentimes what does not make sense on a literal level does make sense on a metaphorical level. This part of the Torah portion leads to a more metaphorical interpretation. Fire is a universal symbol for passion. Fire appears in two contexts in this story: first as the fire the brothers send up to God and second as the fire that consumes them on the inside.

The passion that burns inside of these two men is a divine one, centered on God. Divine passion both fills them and kills them. They first, however, offer their own fire up to God. This fire is "alien," or alienating. The two brothers separate themselves from the rest of the people and concentrate their passions on God. The brothers cultivate private passion for God, one that eventually consumes them.

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Michelle Wasserman

Michelle Wasserman is an associate at Cooley Godward Kronish. She received her JD from Harvard Law School in 2007. She served as President of the Harvard Jewish Law Students Association and a member of the Harvard International Law Journal.