April 20, 2006
Death by Fire
Parshat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)
The Torah sometimes gives us verses that shock us. You know, the kind that wake us up, make sure we are paying attention. This week, in Parshat Sh'mini, we find such a verse. The story of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron who die a tragic death at the hand of God for supposedly offering "strange fire" on the altar, is both shocking and upsetting.
After offering this "strange fire," the Torah recounts, "A fire went forth from before God and consumed them, and they died before God" (Leviticus 10:2).
In an instant, their lives are over, taken from the world without as much as a rebuke, explanation or warning -- one moment they are alive, the next moment, they are dead.
Or are they?
While most commentators spend time discussing what they did wrong to incur God's wrath, with the responses ranging from arrogance, lack of faith, egotism, ambition or impatience on the negative side, to extreme piety and a desire to get as close to God as possible on the positive side, none of these arguments seem deserving of immediate and unexplained death to a modern mind. In fact, is there any wrongdoing that deserves this kind of death?
It happens again in the Haftorah for this week (2 Samuel 6), when Uzza, worried that the ark might fall after hitting a bump, reaches out to try and stabilize it. God is incensed at Uzza's lack of faith, and kills him on the spot. Is this the kind of God that we believe in? Or is the shock value meant to inspire a different and more complex reading of the text? I want to suggest the latter.
In studying the verse that takes Nadav and Avihu's lives, I noticed the language of the verse is exactly the same as the verse that ends the previous chapter. In the end of the opening section on ritual sacrifice, Moses and Aaron come out, bless the people and then the presence of God appears before all the people. "And fire went forth from before God and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. All the people saw and shouted and fell on their faces" (Leviticus 9:24).
The opening words of the verse that kills the sons are the same as the opening words about how sacrifices were consumed.
What can we learn from the similarity in language?
The obvious assumption is always that Nadav and Avihu were literally killed in that moment. However, there is a reading in B.T. Sanhedrin 52a, which suggests something different. Rather than understanding that they died, the Talmud explains that the fire that came forth from God consumed only their souls and did not take their lives. The fire that came forth did not kill them, but rendered them spiritually dead inside.
"In direct contrast to the previous interpretations, it sees them as no longer feeling reverence or holiness in carrying out their sacred tasks. They were emotionally burned out. Their souls had shriveled even as they continued to go through the motions of religious ritual" (Etz Chayyim Commentary, p. 633).
The first fire that went forth consumed sacrifices that the people were moved to bring, inspired to offer, humbled to participate in. The second fire that went forth consumed souls that no longer saw the relevance and meaning in serving God, souls that no longer had the intention of performing mitzvot with a sense of kavod, or honor, but rather solely as meaningless obligations that held no significance in the hearts of the bodies performing them. For that reason, the fire went worth.
There is profound significance for us today in understanding this tragic story in such a way that sees Nadav and Avihu not as being killed, but as being spiritually void, which can manifest itself as death itself.
Today, Judaism is undergoing a transformation, as we seek to embody the words of Rav Kook, who said we must make the old new and the new holy. Prayer must be made spiritually meaningful, whereby it becomes what Heschel described as the language of the soul, not just the language of the past. Mitzvot are about connecting us to a sense of greater meaning and value, not just about performing obligatory acts for an obscure God. Tikkun olam is about delving into the root causes of why people are hungry, why genocide is taking place in Darfur, why we won't create alternative energy sources, understanding those causes and making change.
Nadav and Avihu lost their essence, or as one of my colleagues posited, maybe they didn't know how to be holy yet. Our task today is to create a Judaism that speaks to the hearts and souls of our people; I fear that too many of us let ourselves get to the place of Nadav and Avihu, and then it is too late.
May we all find ways to light the fire of God within us, rather than being consumed by the fire of indifference. This is the essence of leaving Mitzrayim and entering the Promised Land.
Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. He serves as social action chair for the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, and co-chair of the Los Angeles chapter and on the national board of Brit Tzedek V'Shalom.