The Time And Place For Spontaneity

The deaths of Nadav and Avihu, Aaron's sons, teach us the value and also danger of spontaneous religious expression.

Commentary on Parashat Shmini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47; Exodus 12:1-20

This week, we read the portion of Shmini, which means “the eighth.” It refers to the eighth day of the opening of the Tabernacle, which was actually its first real functioning day, after seven days of special inaugural rituals performed by Moses, Aaron, and the other priests.

On this ‘official opening day,’ Moses commands Aaron and the people to bring sacrifices to the Tabernacle, “for today God will appear to you,” which is, after all, the point of the Tabernacle.

Aaron and his sons prepare the animal sacrifices as they are commanded, and as hoped for, “…the glory of God was shown to the entire nation. And a fire went out from before God and consumed the burnt offering and the fats which were on the altar, and the entire nation saw, and celebrated, and fell on their faces.”

This moment, the climax of so much work and ritual, is what the Tabernacle was all about: the palpable presence of God, experienced by the entire people. The feeling one gets when reading this section is–it worked! They did it! All that effort paid off, and the people really experienced God’s presence.

A Strange Fire

Unbelievably, tragically, what happens next is this:

Now Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his pan and placed in it fire, and placed on it incense, and brought it before the Lord; a strange fire which he had not commanded them. And a fire went out from before the Lord and consumed them and they died before God. And Moses said to Aaron: this is what God was referring to when he said ‘with those close to me I will be sanctified, and before the entire nation I will be honored’, and Aaron was silent.

For centuries, commentators have debated the meaning of this story. What was the sin of Nadav and Avihu, what was the “strange fire” they offered, and why did they die because of it? What does Moses mean when he says “this is what God was referring to when he said ‘with those close to me I will be sanctified, and before the entire nation I will be honored?’” How could such a tragic event sanctify and honor God, and why did it happen on the joyous day of the opening of the Tabernacle?

I would like to focus on one specific aspect of this difficult story: What was Moses talking about when he said to Aaron, “This is what God was referring to when he said ‘with those close to me I will be sanctified?'” When did God say this, and what kind of sanctification did he mean?

Rashi quotes a Midrash that appears in the Talmud, which elaborates on Moses’s words. According to this Midrash, back in Exodus, along with the original commandment to build the Tabernacle, God said that the Tabernacle would be hallowed by His glory. At the time, Moses apparently understood this to mean that it would be hallowed by the death of God’s most glorious and respected followers.

Moses, in our parsha, after the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, tells Aaron that, until now, he had thought that God meant that either himself or Aaron, the two leaders of the people, would die, thereby, somehow, sanctifying and glorifying the Temple. But now that Aaron’s sons have died, Moses sees that they are in fact greater than their father Aaron or their uncle Moses, and were therefore chosen to sanctify the Tabernacle with their deaths. This is apparently intended as a kind of consolation to Aaron, who accepts it in silence.

The notion that someone great or important would die at the inauguration of the Temple, in order to somehow sanctify it, is a strange one, reminiscent of human sacrifice. Apparently, it indicates that the full force and profundity of God’s presence in the Tabernacle could only be communicated by the death of one of the leaders of the Jewish people — a dramatic indication of God’s might, and of the awesome nature of His Temple. If this is the case, why, indeed, were Moses and/or Aaron, clearly the greatest Jews available, not chosen to play that role? Why were Nadav and Avihu chosen, and wherein lies their greatness?

The Torah Tells Us All We Need to Know

To answer this question, I am going to assume that there is no secret, unknown story which explains their stature. I will assume that what the Torah tells us about Nadav and Avihu is all we need to know. If this is so, then all we know of them and their greatness is the fact of their offering “a strange fire, which they had not been commanded to bring” before God. This, apparently, is their greatness, and also the act that triggered their deaths.

If this is the case, and the act of offering an unbidden ‘strange fire’ before God places the sons of Aaron on some higher level than Moses and Aaron, then we must think a bit more about the nature of their act. It would seem that this spontaneous, voluntary, from-the-heart offering of incense is in some way more precious, more honorable, than the commanded rites performed so obediently by Moses and Aaron.

The impetuous, unbidden, unscripted act of the sons stands in stark contradistinction to the days and weeks of strict obedience to the specifics of God’s commandments about the building and operation of the Tabernacle on the part of the fathers. The values of spontaneity, imagination, and creativity, are privileged, according to Moses’s statement, above the values of strict obedience to the letter of the law. And yet, for acting on these values, Nadav and Avihu are killed.

This voluntary offering seems, therefore, to communicate two contradictory messages. On the one hand, when Moses states that Nadav and Avihu are greater than he and Aaron, he seems to underscore the value of spontaneity, creativity, and personal statement in religious activity. On the other hand, the death of the boys indicates that such an approach is dangerous, threatening, and, ultimately unacceptable in the Temple. The implication seems to be that there is value in their actions, but not when they are done in the Temple.

Outside the Temple confines, in some other unspecified area of religious life, the sensibilities which Nadav and Avihu represent are of value, and are to be cherished. This is what makes them ‘greater’ than Moses and Aaron, who, as obedient servants of God, lack these qualities. In the Temple, however, the immediacy and totality of God’s overwhelming presence necessitates the obedience of a Moses and Aaron–there is no room left for the creativity and spontaneity of Nadav and Avihu’s offering.

This is why Moses and Aaron were not chosen to sanctify the Tabernacle with their deaths–their mode of religious activity is appropriate to the Tabernacle. They have already learned to control themselves, and act in accordance with the demands of the immediate presence of God. It is Nadav and Avihu’s mode of religious expression, as precious as it may be, which is at odds with the supreme sanctity of the Tabernacle.

It may be that our challenge, today, is to try to determine exactly where and when such creativity and spontaneity is to be applauded and encouraged in religious life, and where and when it is to be condemned, and a more conservative, obedient, strict adherence to traditional norms of religiosity is called for.

It is important to note, I think, that this entire story is told in the context of fathers and sons–Aaron’s grief as a father who has lost his sons, Moses’s comforting him as a brother and uncle, it all very much feels like a family story. This seems to me to indicate that the issue we have discussed here is a generational one.

Aaron and Moses, the archetypal fathers/founders of the family/tribe, have a relationship with God and His laws which is typified by obedience, concern for detail, and letter-of-the-law compliance with the rules. Their children have a more personal, dynamic, from-the-heart (perhaps rebellious) relationship with the religion and its rituals.

This is seen by the “parents” — God, Moses, and, in his silent acquiescence, Aaron — as valuable and precious, but too dangerous to be central to the rite and ritual of the tribe. It belongs elsewhere, outside of the center. The Temple is not the place for this strange fire, and, therefore, they must be punished for deviating from religious norms in this holiest of places, thereby making it clear to the rest of the “children” that such behavior, while of tremendous value, is unacceptable at the center of the nation’s religious experience.

This really resonates for me as both a parent and a child. The difficult tasks of setting limits and educating for values on the one hand, while encouraging and being open to creativity and ‘different-ness’ on the other, is central to parenting. Hopefully, we can learn from Nadav and Avihu to value the personal, spontaneous gift from the heart, in our children, in others, and in ourselves, and find an appropriate place for it somewhere in our religious lives, and, in fact, in our lives in general.

Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.

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