Challenging Isolation

Too much isolation set Nadav and Avihu over the edge.

Commentary on Parashat Tzav, Leviticus 6:1-8:36; Numbers 19:1-22

We tend to think of solitary confinement as an awful thing. Yet, at times, many of us have chosen to detach ourselves in order to give our full attention to an important task. Our other responsibilities and connections temporarily fall away as we push single-mindedly toward accomplishing our goal. For this type of endeavor, the intensity of focused time is often useful, even necessary. However, dangers abound. We may forget our connections and our broader commitments. We may slip away from society.

Priestly Isolation

The Torah prescribes isolation at the end of Parashat Tzav. As the long-awaited consecration of the Tabernacle draws near, God dictates the final instructions for Aaron and his sons:

“You shall not go outside the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days, until the day that your period of ordination is completed…You shall remain at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting day and night for seven days, keeping God’s charge–that you may not die–for so I have been commanded. And Aaron and his sons did all the things that God had commanded through Moses.”

The day job of the priests becomes an all-encompassing 24-hour affair, and Aaron and his sons begin a week of singular attention to their roles in the dedication of the Tabernacle. It is not surprising that this task demands complete focus – -the Tabernacle is thus far uncharted territory and the stakes are high. The priests cannot afford any distractions.

“That You May Not Die”

Despite the separation God commands, we are confronted by a striking irony. God clearly specifies the benefit of the imposed isolation in the Tabernacle for seven days — “that you may not die.” Aaron and his sons faithfully adhere to the prescribed isolation.

However, just over a chapter later — at the pinnacle of the consecration — two of Aaron’s four sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer a “strange fire,” one that they were not commanded to offer. Their punishment for this transgression is death, and they are consumed by Divine flame. The echo of the verses prescribing isolation rings in our ears as we read of their death. Nahmanides relates to this echo in his commentary on these verses:

In every other place it says, ‘As God commanded through Moses,’ but here, because they added to the commandment it did not describe their actions using this language, because they did not do ‘as God had commanded Moses.’ Rather, they did ‘all the things God commanded’ and added on to them, as it was written, ‘alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them.’

Losing Sight

Nahmanides points out astutely that Aaron’s sons did not merely follow God’s word — they added something of their own. Perhaps it is in their very addition to the command for isolation that Nadav and Avihu get carried away and offer this strange fire. God commands them to separate for seven days to prepare for the consecration of the Tabernacle. In their detachment they lose sight of their role to lead the community and instead offer up their own fire.

This fire is brought on the eighth day. Was it this extra day of isolation that pushes Nadav and Avihu over the edge? The Sages support this idea, suggesting that Nadav and Avihu never married and did not have children. In the Sages’ world, marriage and child-rearing were moorings to anchor one to the community. We now see the irony in sharp relief: the isolation that was meant to be their very protection from death becomes, so painfully, their downfall.

The story of Nadav and Avihu teaches us that isolation should be treated as a means to accomplishing a goal, not an end unto itself, and that isolation is never meant to be a permanent state.

Global Responsibility

In a global era we must recognize how our concept of society and our detachment from it has been radically redefined. We have access to tremendous information, resources and people the world over. Yet we often choose not to make those connections, thinking of ourselves as separate from those suffering and struggling across the globe.

We must remember to balance our sometimes necessary isolation in our own tabernacle of family and Jewish community with the dangers of forgetting about the lives of people in the Global South. For them, every day is a struggle for economic sustenance. Survival often stands in the way of their ability to articulate the hopes and dreams we take for granted.

Lest we, too, come to offer a strange fire, a product of a too-extensive isolation, let us commit to following the stories of our broader international community as part of our weekly schedule. Let us choose a region to which we feel connected and promise to act for its development. Nadav and Avihu’s eighth day of isolation was their demise. May our atonement for their death come through never letting a whole week go by without acting on our global awareness.

Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

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